Soup had, after a few impatient lessons from Maggie, managed to merge tin cans to the soles of his shoes. He was walking back and forth in the alley behind the house, demonstrating. The soft metal had collapsed somewhat, and unevenly, so he was having some issues with balance, but altogether he had still managed to add about four inches to his height. His steps crunched on the gritty cobbled ground. He took off his gray slouch hat and bowed with a grin. His red bow tie was resplendent.
Maggie sarcastically applauded. Erik wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do.
“Now let’s see ya dance,” said Maggie.
“Screw you, Maggie,” Soup said. He slipped out of the shoes, wobbling as he put his stocking feet on the ground. The shoes weren’t for walking, anyway. He just didn’t have an extra pair. His left stocking had a hole in the toe and both were liberally blackened with mud and soot. They matched the rest of him. Even his blond hair had black streaks in it. He wiped his smudged nose on his equally-smudged sleeve and replaced the hat, giving it an insolent tilt to one side. “Whaddya guys think? I got a phonebook. I bet we can find a car someplace.”
It was Sun’s Day afternoon, Erik and Maggie had twenty-four scints between them and the theoretical run of the neighborhood. Given Maggie’s presence, school was right out. Maggie had quite enough school during the rest of the week, thank you. Given Maggie and Soup’s presence, there was an emphasis on petty larceny.
“You just want me along so I can magic the cops if they catch you,” Maggie said.
“Well, so what if I do?” Soup said. “That make it any less fun?”
“Nah,” said Maggie, smiling.
“My uncle wouldn’t like it,” Erik said.
“Your uncle doesn’t like anything,” Soup replied. “Come on. We’re not gonna end up in jail or whatever. Maggie can turn policemen into frogs.”
“Police officers,” Erik said.
“It’s gender neutral.”
“I’m not turning the police into frogs just so you can boost a car, Soup,” Maggie interrupted. Never mind that, at her skill level, ‘turning the police into frogs’ was liable to come out more like ‘exploding human beings like meat bombs.’ She wasn’t going to do that, either.
“Well, just screw their heads around backwards or peck their eyes out or something, then,” Soup said. “It doesn’t have to be showy.”
“You got a real warped idea of ‘showy,'” Maggie said.
“Come on, Maggie!” Soup said. He lifted his shoes. “I spent forever on these! I’ll let you drive!”
She brightened. “But I’m not tall enough…”
“You can sit in my lap and steer! I’ll do the pedals!”
“That’s dumb,” Erik said. He wasn’t sure if ‘dumb’ was the word he was after, but the idea bothered him somehow. Anyway, it was dumb. “You don’t even know if you can reach and steer. You’ll just crash and you’ll put Maggie through the windshield.”
“Yeah, at a blistering two miles per hour,” Maggie said with a snicker. She put up both hands and leaned forward slightly, approximating the impact.
Soup smiled at him. “Hey, Erik, whyn’tcha tell us what time it is?”
Erik frowned and put a hand over his pocket so Soup couldn’t fish out the watch and take it. “No.”
“Come on. I like the one with the spaghetti. That’s great.”
Maggie elbowed him. “That really pisses me off when you tease him like that, Soup.”
Erik looked down. He still had his hand over his pocket. Cornflakes and Jonathan had teased him about the watch, too. It was weird that he had one in the first place, like an old person or something. He didn’t mind as much about that, but Cornflakes and Soup had seen the pictures.
The watch didn’t have any numbers. It had pictures. A mechanical eye opening for Time to Wake Up. An egg in an egg cup for Breakfast. A box of crayons for Time to Play. Spaghetti for Dinner. Like he couldn’t tell time and he didn’t know what numbers were.
He couldn’t tell time and he didn’t know what numbers were, back when Milo made the watch. It was to help him remember what he was supposed to be doing, like Hyacinth used to have a chart when she got hurt.
He liked the watch. It had helped a lot. He didn’t need the pictures now, but he could tell what time it really was around them. And… And it was just something to have. If he was nervous or uncertain about something he could dip his hand in his pocket and feel it or play with the chain. He didn’t need to check it, not now, but it was nice having it there. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t have to make sense.
It’s okay if I don’t know what to do. It’s okay if there’s a god I need to pretend I don’t see, or a voice no one else hears, or some horses. I have a watch!
But sometimes when he was getting dressed and doing up his shoes and putting in his eye, he thought about putting the watch in a drawer somewhere (maybe Hyacinth’s junk drawer, in the kitchen. Then she’d use it) and forgetting about it and never wearing it again. Because of the pictures.
Probably Milo would change the face for him, if he asked. Pitch out the piece of cardboard with the pictures and do one with real numbers. But he didn’t think he’d want it the same if it didn’t have the pictures. It would be like if someone changed his toy elephant so it was frowning at him.
He kept his hand pressed over his pocket so Soup couldn’t pull out the watch. He ducked his head and looked aside. “I can get… pissed off… for my own self… Maggie,” he said.
“Yeah, but you don’t,” Maggie said. She folded her arms over her chest. “You just sit there smiling like you’re trying to swallow a pill.”
“Not… smiling,” Erik said. He did sometimes — okay, usually — but not now. He glared at her. “You want me to… punch people?”
She seemed to consider it, tilting her head to one side. “You know, I’d feel better about you if I knew you could. But I think if you tried it, you’d get creamed.”
“Oh, yeah,” Soup said. “Totally. I think Bethany could cream Erik.” Bethany was five. But she got this look in her eyes…
Erik clenched his hands at his sides. “I could call a… god any… time I… wanted!”
Maggie put up both hands and shook her head, such that her pigtails hit her in the nose. “Erik, that’s like punching yourself!” When Erik got done holding Auntie Enora, he’d hardly been able to move. And he’d looked like one of those little kids with the crutches whose pictures they paste on the sides of donation cups. Please Help Me.
“They don’t all… hurt you!” Erik said. He screwed up his face and formed each word with drawn effort, “Saint… George… only wants… liquor and a… cigarette! And he… kills people! My… mom used to… call him to… hold the… wall… during the… siege!” He wasn’t sure at the moment if his uncle had told him that.
“Erik…” Maggie sat down beside him on the step. “That’s like me trying to turn the police into frogs. That’s not just getting nicked with your hand in some guy’s pocket and a cop drags you home and you get yelled at. That’s going to prison. I’m just saying you gotta stick up for yourself. Soup doesn’t need to die for being a jerk, he just needs a couple bruises to keep him in line.”
“Yeah! Seriously!” Soup said, nodding. This conversation just took a hell of a turn. Gods! He only wanted to have a little fun! What the hell was up with these crazy magicians?
“There’s… probably a… god who does… bruises,” Erik muttered, not much mollified.
“Yeah, but does he eat kittens?” Soup said.
Erik twitched a small smile. “Probably.”
“I do bruises,” Maggie said. “And I peck people’s eyes out, too.” She stood and kicked Soup squarely in the shin with the round toe of her black shoe.
Maggie grinned at him. “Quit being a jackass and teach me to drive!”
They went towards Sabot Street and up Swan’s Neck. The neighborhood was marginally nicer that way, shops with people living above them, not pubs and doss houses and rented rooms. Fewer broken windows and abandoned buildings. It was somewhat more likely some idiot had left a car parked on the side of the street, or in an alley.
It was way more fun dodging stray dogs with Maggie along. She could put them places. She’d left a mystified terrier mix standing on a shake shingle roof three stories up. (Soup had wanted her to put it in a tree, but Erik thought that was too mean.)
Soup was walking carefully and carrying his shoes with the tin cans. Erik had volunteered to tote the phone-book, though it was starting to feel a bit heavy. Maggie had the slingshot in her back pocket and a few good rocks, just in case. Reading from left to right they were neat as a pin, thrift-store casual, and a walking dustbin. The three of them looked ready to take on the world, or at least a small country.
“You guys got lunch money?” Soup inquired, craning his head to observe a few men seated at tables and chairs outside of a dingy bodega. Some of them were smoking and playing cards. All of them had coffee and donuts.
“Hyacinth gave you a sandwich,” Maggie said.
“That’s spaghetti and crayons ago, Maggie,” Soup said. He slowed as they walked past, but nothing edible was near enough to snatch, not if he wanted to be subtle about it.
Erik couldn’t help snickering.
They’d been past one car already, but that one had door locks and a roof and people near enough to notice them messing around with it. What they needed was not merely a car, but an opportunity.
Erik noted Cousin Violet standing at the entry to an alleyway and pointing. (There had also been, about a block ago, a glowing woman with an enormous hat admiring a treeful of cherry blossoms, but Erik knew not to let on he could see her.)
This was a conundrum. Cousin Violet liked to make things happen, and she could be helpful, but she had about as good an idea of “helpful” as Soup had about “showy.”
There is probably a car that way, but when we start it up, is it gonna explode?
There was no way of knowing what was gonna happen. It might even be something worse than that. But there was no way of knowing what was gonna happen anyway, and Violet would get pissed off if he just blew past her like he couldn’t see her. She knew he could.
Okay, Violet. Let’s play. “Hey, you guys, let’s go this way.”
Maggie said, “Okay,” and Soup shrugged. It wasn’t like they had any better ideas of where to go.
Past a warehouse and a butcher’s with blood in the gutters and a crumbling building that the bombs had taken out years ago, there was a car tucked into a little side street lined with trash cans. It was an older model, boxy like a wagon, with gas lamps and the cloth top accordioned back. You could just climb in. There was room for three of them, if somebody stood on the running boards… or if Maggie was going to sit in Soup’s lap and steer. It had a crank start, and the owner had taken the crank with them, but that made no difference if you were going to hit it with magic.
It was parked in front of a yellow fireplug.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Soup said, rubbing his hands together. “Look at that. Endangering the public! They deserve this.”
Erik nodded. He hoped that was all Violet intended.
Soup swung over the door without even bothering about the handle and dropped into the driver’s seat. Maggie climbed up and stood on that side, examining the controls. She did not intend to be relegated to the passenger’s side. After brief hesitation, Erik sat there. They could still say they were just looking at it. That wouldn’t get them into too much trouble. It wasn’t like they had to break in.
The seats were red, tufted leather and hard like a park bench.
Erik was displeased to note that the horn, a bulbous brass ‘aoogha’ model, was only accessible from the driver’s side as well. He didn’t even get a mirror to play with.
Soup put on his shoes, resting each foot on the dash to do so. “Hey, Erik. Give us the phonebook.” That went on the seat. Soup attempted to reach the pedals from this new configuration. Gingerly, with the parking brake still on, he stepped on one of the pedals under the wheel and shifted the car from ‘neutral’ to ‘drive.’ Looking up, the steering wheel and the dash did not impede his vision in the least. “Ha! Growing up is for suckers!”
“You still gotta get taller if you wanna drink in pubs,” Maggie said.
“Nah. Then you hafta pay for it.” Soup scooted aside so Maggie could get a good look at the pedals and he put his hand on the throttle. “Okay, this is an old one, so if you’re gonna help drive, I get the gears and the brake and you get the steering and the gas. This guy here is the parking brake.” He indicated a lever sprouting up from the floor. “Once we get going, you leave that alone. You really gotta lay into that steering wheel to turn it. It’s not like a bicycle, you’re moving gears and stuff.”
Maggie and Erik both gravely accepted this information.
“What’s this button do?” Erik asked. He had a grand total of one on his side, with a keyhole next to it.
“Glovebox,” Soup said. He depressed the button and rattled the door. “Maggie, can you get it? Maybe there’s cash.”
Maggie hit the keyhole with a simple spell and the door fell open.
Man, I didn’t even get to press my own button, Erik thought.
“Hey, awesome!” Soup said. There was a folded road map in there, which was not awesome, but also a chequered cap, two sets of goggles and some driving gloves. Soup instantly claimed these.
Maggie snatched the gloves from him, “I’m driving.”
“We’re sharing!” Soup said. “You can’t drive the whole time, you hafta figure it out. And I did all this stuff so I’d be tall enough to see. I get the gloves! You have gloves!”
“Well, you have a hat!” She attempted to wear the chequered cap, but her pigtails interfered.
“Ha!” Soup said.
Erik, meanwhile, had contented himself with the road map.
There were a few moments of furious trading and negotiation. Soup and Maggie each got one driving glove and a set of goggles. Soup got to wear the chequered cap. Erik ended up with the road map (which no one else wanted in the first place) and Soup’s hat. It was reasoned that he did not require goggles because he only had one real eye and if they got going fast enough for that to be uncomfortable he could close it and still see.
“So, what you’ve got here is your basic infernal combustion engine,” Soup told them, leaning forward to indicate the black-painted housing on the front of the car.
Erik and Maggie exchanged a glance, and a grin. They lived with Milo. They knew from mechanical things.
“It’s got cylinders,” Soup expounded, oblivious. “And horsepower. Runs on gas! Like the streetlights!” He had also heard people say engines had oil, but he was pretty sure oil and gas were the same thing.
“Gasoline is a hydrocarbon,” Maggie said. “It’s a liquid. It’s obtained by the distillation of petroleum, a fossil fuel, which is made from dead dinosaurs. Illuminating gas is a mixture of hydrogen and hydrocarbon gases.”
“Dinosaurs?” Erik said. He didn’t know that part! Milo never drew dinosaurs!
“Uh, yeah,” Soup said, peering at the housing. Dinosaurs? How would you get those in there? He was pretty sure Maggie was teasing him, but if he tried to call her on it she might kick him again. “Anyway, it wants a crank, like the glovebox wants a key.” (This was also fundamentally incorrect.) He grinned. “But we can do magic and fool it. This one is the gearshift.” He moved his crunching tin-can shoe on the pedal. “We got go forward, go forward fast, go backward and neutral. You gotta leave it in neutral to start the thing or it won’t.”
Neutral, Erik thought. Like ‘police officer.’ That… didn’t seem like it made any sense, but okay. Maybe the car needed respect.
“Maggie, this one’s the gas.” Soup showed her the throttle next to the steering wheel. “This is more and this is less. More is faster, but don’t open ‘er up all the way. We can’t go that fast in the city, and if you give it too much gas it quits working. I’ll work it to start, okay?”
“Should I get in your lap now or later?” Maggie said.
“I guess now.” He didn’t know how far they were going to get and Maggie would be pissed if she didn’t get a chance to at least steer. Maggie swung a leg over the door like she was mounting a bicycle and thumped down. “Ow! What the hell? You got rocks in your pockets or something?”
“Yeah,” Maggie said. She removed them and gave them to Erik, also the slingshot. “Here, you’re on defense. You’ve got better aim than me, anyways.”
Erik nodded and smiled. He did have better aim, but he didn’t expect to be doing much defensive, not with Maggie along to do magic. (The smile was more to do with Maggie crunching into Soup’s lap with her rocks in her pockets.)
“Scootch over, damn it,” Soup said. “This whole tin can and phonebook thing is so I can see…”
Maggie obligingly leaned sideways at forty-five degrees and braced herself with her arm around Erik’s shoulders. Erik also approved of this.
Soup lifted a hand, snapped fingers and said, “Abracadabra!” The car’s engine rumbled to life.
To the uninitiated, this would have looked cool. Erik and Maggie (especially Maggie) knew Soup was still doing verbal magic and he had to anchor it to a gesture. It was like training wheels.
Look at me! I’m eleven years old and I’m on a tricycle with streamers! Beep-beep!
Of course, this was raw, elemental, reality-warping power and there were a lot of grown adults out there who couldn’t even work it like a tricycle, but to Erik and Maggie, it was funny. Maggie snickered and Erik covered his smile with a hand. He was still doing verbal magic, too — to the extent that he was doing any magic, mostly in the kitchen — but he was way younger than Soup. And he didn’t have to snap his fingers, that was just silly.
(He didn’t know how to snap his fingers. Likewise, he was experiencing some difficulty with the concept of whistling.)
Soup absorbed this mild affront with magnanimity. He knew he was cool. That was half of what being cool was, really. Knowing it. “Okay, kids!” he said, shifting into first. “Let’s go for a ride!”
The boxy black car trundled down the side street at slightly less than walking speed. They dinged a trash can on the way past, but Soup corrected his course and they weren’t going fast enough to do more than nudge it slightly askew. Erik leaned over the door on his side and peered at the cobbles inching past, perhaps on the lookout for any snails that might zoom by. “Doesn’t it go any faster?”
He’d never been in a car with Soup driving before, that was kind of neat, but, honestly, it had looked more fun from the outside. Buses were more exciting.
Soup was too busy with Maggie to pay any attention to Erik. “Let me steer it!” she said, repeatedly smacking his gloved hand on the wheel. The driving gloves did not fit either of them and the fingers were crumpled like horrible fractures.
“Cut it out!” Soup said. “There’s not even any place to turn yet!”
“Then it’s easy!” Maggie said.
“Can we at least honk the horn or something?” Erik said.
“Are you crazy?” Soup said. “We don’t want people looking! Does it look like we own this thing? Maggie, go left, keep it in the alley. Left, Maggie. Maggie, Maggie, LEFT!”
Maggie was not yanking the wheel with enough gusto to get it to go left, not a hard left like they needed, but she managed to correct it within the ten minutes it would’ve taken them to plow into the wall.
“Go faster, there’s more room,” Erik said, observing the street.
“You go faster!” Soup said.
“I think I could,” Erik said.
“Lemme work the gas,” Maggie said. “Put it in ‘go forward faster.’ Come on!”
“Dammit, Maggie, stop kicking me! I’m gonna call the cops on you for domestic violence!”
Maggie tipped up her nose. “I am not domesticated,” she said proudly. She swatted his hand off the throttle.
“Don’t flood it,” Soup said. “I’m serious. I’m not driving another car with you ever, so you better get all the fun out of this one you can.”
“Killjoy,” Maggie said. She honked the horn. It gave a most satisfying blare, which echoed.
“Geez!” Soup said. He flinched and looked behind them. “What if the people who own it heard that?”
“I guess we better go faster, then!” Maggie said with a grin. She opened up the throttle, but gently, and picked up the pace to a rapid jog.
Erik was consulting the road map with an index finger. “You guys know what street we’re on?”
“We’re not on a street! We’re not getting on a street!”
“Well, if I knew where we were, I could figure out which way to go so we don’t get on a street.”
“Erik, you don’t know which way the letter B goes,” Maggie said.
“This… is… different!” Erik spat. Although, examining the map, maybe it wasn’t…? He frowned and turned it sideways. Damn it.
“Hey, this dial thingy goes to forty-five!” Maggie noted. They were currently pegging around eight.
“Maggie, no!” Soup said. He tried urgently to shift from first into second. He’d never done that before, he wasn’t sure what the exact position was, he forgot to pop the clutch and he ground the gears.
Erik dropped the map and put hands over his ears, wincing. Maggie’s grin did not falter in the least. “Quit screwing up, Soup!” she said. “You’re supposed to know how to drive!”
Why do I share things with people? Soup thought. Why did I think this would be fun?
Oh, yeah. He’d thought he’d be the one driving.
“Hey, Erik, is it left or right up here?” Maggie said. She was teasing, but Erik didn’t have enough warning to put that together. He fumbled the map, “Huh?”
Left…? Right…? Okay, wait, let me think, which hand do I write with…? It also looked like he was going to have to decode whether left and right corresponded to north, south, east or west.
Soup filed through his own mental streetfinder, which was much more accurate to Strawberryfield, and included useful things like where to find food and where the police usually were. He knew there was a whole police station up around here somewhere and he wanted to avoid that. “Go right, Maggie,” he said. This was the right decision police-station-wise, but not staying-unnoticed-in-alleyways-wise. It still would have been all right, except for another couple bad turns, the last of which Erik supplied. (He had arbitrarily decided, unknown to the other two or even himself, that they were tooling through downtown Ansalem, which was six hours away by train.)
Now going a positively giddy seventeen miles per hour, they were spat out of a narrow passageway that was more of a drainage ditch than a road, right into the middle of Ha’penny Square.
There was a market going on this Sun’s Day. Primarily fruit, vegetables and flowers.
They were three obvious children in a car with no roof, windows or anonymity, and they were going seventeen miles per hour on the sidewalk.
Circumstances quickly provided a police officer. Erik, Maggie and Soup especially Soup) were familiar with the sound of the whistle, which cut through the hubbub and indignant shouting like a sword.
“Oh, shit…” Maggie said.
Erik ducked his head and covered his eyes. He was acquainted with Maggie’s ‘I am doing a lot of math very fast’ frown, he knew what it meant, and he had an eye he couldn’t shut conventionally.
Soup, on the other hand, had no warning and no chance.
Maggie’s shoes and clothing were always the same, with small, seasonal variances — even the underwear. (She took special care to remember her underwear.) This cut down on the amount of time it took her to put a spell together and decreased the margin of error.
…Socks. Shoes. Fingers and toes. Kidneys. I got a sol and a disme in my right pocket… That’s it. Go!
There was a blinding white flash and the tearing sound of air filling a sudden space, and a black and white magpie zipped urgently into the crowd to silence the whistle. A single driving glove, and a pair of driving goggles dropped into Soup’s lap. A black shoe with a cuffed white sock inside it had been left on the floor.
The policeman (officer) was easily found. He was running after the kids in the car with a hand up and a whistle in his mouth. The magpie flew directly into his face and removed it. This involved a great deal of screaming and choking, as the whistle was attached to a chain around the man’s neck.
“Piss off, fuzz!” the magpie said. (Maggie had been making an intensive study in human speech, out in back of the house with Soup and Erik. She didn’t have lips, teeth or a conventional tongue, so the requisite sounds had to be learned from scratch, and even with practice, some of them came out pressed and inexact. She had felt it of paramount importance to learn rude phrases, and every swearword she and Soup could come up with between them. She could also say, “Chips!“)
Confronted with the abjectly surreal, the police officer stopped struggling and stared. This gave Maggie a moment to put together a deconstruction spell and melt the whistle. Then she had a go at the man’s helmet.
Meanwhile, in the car, things were a bit less chaotic but no less desperate. “Ah, fuck!” Soup cried. He had both hands over his eyes, neither on the wheel or the throttle. The car was coasting to a halt.
“No!” said Erik. “…Fast!” Which was the best he could do to explain his reasoning at the moment.
There was no running away in this crowd, and the police were right there. There were also a lot of other people who might be willing to catch and hold them. Their only advantage was that, in the car, they were faster than all of these people, and the people had to get out of their way. They needed to employ the speed and the intimidation to get somewhere without people, ditch the car, and then run.
To his credit, even flash-blinded and panicking, Soup was able to put the situation together with nothing more than ‘No. Fast.’ There was, however, another issue he felt it prudent to raise, “Erik, I can’t fucking see!”
“STRAIGHT!” said Erik, with a great deal more confidence than he felt. They were on the sidewalk, but because it was the sidewalk, there weren’t market stalls on it. There were people, but people could move. Most already were, in fact.
He also hoped that screaming ‘straight’ at the top of his lungs adequately expressed his intended solution to the ‘I can’t fucking see’ problem.
“Oh, fuck me,” Soup said. He put a hand on the wheel, a hand on the throttle, and he shifted it back into second with a clunk. “GET OUTTA THE WAY!” he shrieked, and he blared the horn a couple of times to emphasize. Then he just screamed.
Erik decided this was a fine course of action, eminently appropriate under the circumstances, and screamed also.
A second police officer had been attracted by the whistling of the first. When he saw his comrade being attacked by a large magpie with his helmet yanked down over his eyes, and a car plowing through the market on the sidewalk, he had a brief moment of confusion about whether to also engage his whistle, which Maggie took advantage of.
“Fack you!” the magpie said. (That was about the best she could get it. It was kinda frustrating.) She went after the whistle first.
Oh, now here was a new problem. Soup and Erik were approaching a fruit stand at a high rate of speed, a fruit stand which only Erik could see. They needed to make some kind of course correction. If Erik were driving, he wouldn’t have had any trouble with it. He could’ve matched turning the wheel to the direction he wanted to go, with instant feedback on whether he was getting it right. But, no, he had to look at it and translate the direction to a word in his head, which did seem to be engaging the same difficulty he had when he flipped his letters around. Maybe the fact that he needed a word and a direction right now had something to do with it.
Well, he only had a couple of seconds here and he had to say something.
“RIGHT!” Erik said.
“Ahhhh!” Soup said, beholding a uniformly purple field of vision. He turned the wheel.
And… Nooo, that seemed to center their course directly on the fruit stand. Oh, look. Cantaloupes, two for a sol.
“WRONG!” Erik said.
“WHAT?” Soup said.
Erik put a hand on the wheel and yanked downwards, assisting the change of direction. This was not enough to save the cantaloupes, but it did wonders for the petrified lady standing behind them, and their ability to continue driving the car. They picked up a faint orange stain on the windshield and one of the headlamps was knocked askew.
“Cantaloupes?” Soup said, blinking.
If Soup could identify cantaloupes, he could drive. “Go!” Erik reminded him. This was punctuated by the shrill blast of a police whistle. Erik turned and looked back at it. The chaos had attracted a third police officer, who was approaching at a run. Maggie already had her hands full dealing with two. She could only do a little magic when she was a bird.
Oh, we need more magpies or we’re never gonna get out of here, Erik thought.
He did not have any more magpies, and he didn’t have any time to look for a god who might do something like that. He did, however, have a slingshot.
And pretty good aim.
I hate you Cousin Violet, Erik thought. But very quietly.
He turned around in his seat, pushed up to the knees so he could see over the back of it, and studied the area for a nice, distracting target. There was a storefront with plate glass windows over there. In the opposite direction from where they were going.
Cousin Violet, you are awesome, Erik thought, much louder. If this works, I’m gonna buy you some of that new chocolate cereal I heard them advertise on the radio, okay?
He wondered, absently, if the chocolate cereal was what Violet had in mind when she pointed them towards the car in the first place. If she let him get away with this, then he’d know.
He shut one eye, his good eye. Well, when it came to matters of precision and putting things exactly where they needed to go, the other eye was his good eye. He employed it, focusing to the point where he couldn’t breathe, so the eye wouldn’t wander off and start looking for lines.
I’ve got one line to look at right here. It’s going from this slingshot to that window. I can see it.
He sort of could.
He aimed, despite the bumping, erratic motion of the car, and fired.
The store window shattered. Then a second one, ten feet away. Then a third. Then Erik was all out of rocks.
“What are you doing?” Soup said.
Erik took a good minute to put together a response, by which time Soup had espied an alleyway and was angling towards it.
“Psychological… warfare,” Erik said.
The chaos behind them was impenetrable. Erik really hoped they hadn’t just started another riot, but he sort of didn’t care.
Soup navigated more by instinct than sense, making rapid turns and seeking the smallest possible spaces. “Anyone behind us?” he asked.
“…Uh-uh,” Erik managed.
“Get ready to run,” Soup said.
They left the engine running and took off in opposite directions, the better to avoid pursuit. At least, that was the intention. But, Soup had merged tin cans to his shoes, and he did not feel it prudent to waste time taking them off (also, he’d sort of forgotten). He took two crunching steps and then ironed himself out face-first on the cobbles. “Shit!”
Erik executed a U-turn without slowing and collected him. The ‘run rapidly away and maybe regroup sometime in the distant future’ plan, never fully developed, evolved into ‘limp away as fast as possible and hide behind the nearest trash cans waiting to see if we’re going to get caught.’
There were flies, big shiny green ones. And there was something sticky on the ground that they had to sit in. Soup had twisted his ankle, torn a large hole in his stocking and scraped open his leg — which stung but wasn’t bleeding too badly. He was more upset about the stocking. “Damn it, I just found these. They were still good. It’s gonna take me forever to find new ones.”
“You could just steal them from a second-hand shop,” Erik said, peeping past the can. There hadn’t been any police yet. A couple people walking past, but it didn’t look like anyone had noticed the car.
“That’s what I mean, Erik,” Soup said. “People don’t sell off a crazy lot of used stockings, and I need ones that fit.”
“You could go to, like, a regular store,” Erik said. He occasionally ventured into regular stores with his uncle, for socks and underwear and, yes, stockings.
“They wouldn’t let me in. I look like I steal shit. What time is it?”
Erik consulted his watch. The hour hand was creeping slowly from ‘sandwich’ to ‘nap.’ “‘Bout one-thirty.”
“All right, I’ve had it,” Soup said, rising stiffly. They’d been back there about fifteen minutes. Soup had removed the tin cans from his shoes in the interim. “I think we’re safe, and this alley stinks like curdled milk and cabbages. Let’s see if we can find Maggie.”
It was more a matter of Maggie finding them. She had way better range, and she was fast. She said her visual acuity was based on movement, though, which meant that if you wanted her to find you, you ought to wave something around. Erik used his watch, moving it so the glass face caught the light. Soup waved the chequered cap, which he had inadvertently stolen. He’d sell it later, also the goggles. Probably no one was going to want one driving glove. (It had been kind of a profitable excursion, if one didn’t count the pants-wetting terror and stocking loss.)
“Why does everything go all Bartholomew’s dogs within, like, ten seconds when I involve you and Maggie?” Soup asked Erik, frowning.
“Cousin Violet has a sense of humor,” Erik replied.
“I guess you’d know,” Soup allowed.
“I gotta buy chocolate cereal later,” Erik said. “Hey! …There!” There was no need to specify the rest of that sentence — Maggie was visibly wheeling down from above and Erik slowed right down when he got excited.
She landed quite gracefully on the ground in front of them. She was way better at flying now.
“Howdy, Miss Magpie,” Soup said with a bow.
“Maggie, you okay?” Erik asked.
“Chips!” the magpie said.
Ten minutes later, they were sitting on the curb out in front of convenience store. Erik and Soup had their shoes in the gutter and Maggie was standing in the shredded remnants of a bag of cheese and onion potato chips. Erik had an open box of chocolate cereal and Soup had a lapful of chocolate cereal. Erik did not require all the chocolate cereal for Cousin Violet, and it kept Soup away from Maggie’s chips. Maggie needed the chips, all the chips. She needed the energy to change forms, and if she didn’t get it from food, it was going to come out of her body. Maggie’s mom might not notice her being a little thinner, but she would sure have something to say if Maggie turned up missing a finger.
Maggie’s mom had been making a fruitless effort to get her to adhere to a diet of pigeons, or at least mice, while in bird form. Maggie’s form was not ideally suited to taking out live prey, but she could do magic, which provided an assist. The flesh and blood of a fresh kill could be leveraged into paying the material cost of a transformation, which was always greater to turn from a bird into a human than to turn from a human into a bird. It was something to do with the alma, Maggie said, which had something to do with brain size and complexity. (Maggie’s transformation into a magpie was slightly more expensive than her mother’s transformation into a golden eagle, to the General’s chagrin.) The pigeon diet was what allowed Maggie’s mother to turn into a bird and back every day for breakfast and lunch, while still getting enough nourishment to maintain her weight and the functions of life. Maggie was not quite able to do this at the moment, needing an interim of days to make up the weight loss after transforming, but eating live prey would certainly help.
Maggie preferred potato chips. Never mind that magpies could eat anything, she preferred potato chips. Cheese and onion flavor if at all possible. While they might not have alma, they had a lot of calories packed into a small, light package that was easy to steal. She could open them on her own, too.
Having made done with the potato chips, she excused herself with a chirp and flew off with the bag. The bag was deposited in a trash can and Maggie secreted herself in an alley. A transformation was bright and obvious, and a lot of people did not approve of magic. She returned a few moments later, limping with one bare foot. “You guys got my other shoe?”
“Sorry, Maggie,” Erik said.
“Man.” She plunked down beside them and rested her head in her hands. “I’m gonna hafta come up with something really convoluted to explain this.”
“Serves you right for getting my innocent stocking killed,” Soup said, displaying it.
Erik winced at the phrasing. “Did you see what happened after we left? Did anyone get… hurt?”
“I got hurt!” Soup said indignantly.
“I don’t think super hurt,” Maggie said with a shrug. She grinned. “Super scared, though. Was that you with the slingshot?”
“The police think you’re a sniper. It was awesome.”
Erik was not feeling too terribly awesome. He hung his head. “Maybe we better tell Hyacinth. In case there’s a riot.” A riot meant hurt people showing up at the house, or mad people throwing things at it, or sometimes both. He sort of wanted to tell Hyacinth anyway, even if she got mad and yelled. He didn’t have the word ‘absolution,’ but he understood the concept.
His uncle couldn’t ever find out about this, though. He would flip out.
“Maybe we tell her something happened but not we started it by driving on the sidewalk,” Maggie said.
“Hey, Maggie,” Soup said, around noticeable cereal crumbs. “You think if I play up the scraped knee and the limping, Hyacinth might give me another sandwich?”
Milo dropped his pencil and flinched up at the stairs when he heard a footstep. He was a little bit better around Hyacinth now because she hadn’t done anything horrible (recently), and he didn’t see Barnaby a lot, but the basement was his safe place and he wanted to be safe in it. He was pretending he had a really great idea, because that would explain hiding in the basement and not being around people. He drew a few random things with gears and stuck them to the walls as camouflage.
(Hyacinth still knew something was up because he wasn’t consuming coffee, but she didn’t want to poke him about it. He seemed relatively okay.)
It was only Erik. Milo absorbed this at a glance and then returned to his drawing — adding random extra functions to a sewing machine, such as a fresh lemon scent.
Erik gravely deposited the bowl of chocolate cereal in the shrine. He lifted the lid of the cold box, which was half magic, half root-cellar, and selected a bottle of milk to complete his offering.
“Milo, is it okay if we come listen to the Silver Streak later?” Erik asked.
Milo nodded. Maggie could be loud sometimes, and also a bird, but she wouldn’t do that while listening to the radio. The kids were all right.
Erik crept over and investigated the lemon-scented sewing machine. “Did you know gasoline is made of dinosaurs, Milo?” he said. “You should draw dinosaurs sometime.” He went up the stairs without further taxing Milo’s social ability.
Milo blinked. He shook his head. How is gasoline made of dinosaurs? Dinosaurs aren’t real.
Milo was vaguely aware that his scientific education had been somewhat curtailed by religion, and total lack of interest, and an unknown amount of time spent drugged out of his mind in the workhouse infirmary.
Ann! Are dinosaurs real?
Milo, sweetheart, I know I’m here to do the things you can’t, but that doesn’t extend to knowing things about dinosaurs.
…I’m stupid, Milo thought.
No, honey, you’re not. But I think if you want to learn about dinosaurs, we’d better go visit the library.
That’s a seventeen-point-five percent chance over the next ten years that Milo sticks a plunger to a chicken’s butt trying to figure out how dinosaurs walk, Cousin Violet noted, enjoying her chocolate cereal. I think I can push it to twenty-five if I get him into the natural history museum!