“Ticket, yes. Passport, right here. Boarding pass…dammit. Where did I put that? I know I printed it out.” I did a little dance peculiar to people arriving at an airport, the one where you slap various pockets, and juggle luggage, magazines, and purses in order to peer in every easily reached receptacle. Finally, I found the sheet of paper I’d printed before leaving my mothers’ flat. “Gotcha! All right, I think I’m set. I just hope the security line isn’t too long.”
People streamed past me out of the tiled corridor that led to the airport tube station, hauling luggage, children, and parcels of every size as they travelled the moving sidewalks, escalators, and plain old stairs into the airport proper.
A woman next to me, pausing to wait for two bickering teenagers behind her, yelled in a flat American accent that she’d happily leave them behind in Wales if they didn’t get their asses in gear. She caught my eye as I was rearranging my travel documents to be readily available, giving me a grimacing smile. “I swear, I’m never traveling with kids again. Everyone said I was crazy to bring them along with me, but I thought they’d be old enough to appreciate seeing another culture.”
I glanced back to where the teen girl and boy were arguing over what appeared to be a carrier bag filled with magazines. “Didn’t work out as you planned, eh?”
“Lord, no! And we still have Amsterdam and Germany to do. How I’m going to survive another week is beyond me.” She gave me an appraising look as I finished tucking away my magazine, stuffed my purse (denuded of travel documents) into my carry-on bag, and pulled out the handle of the monstrous wheeling suitcase that housed the bulk of my possessions. “You’re American, too?”
“Actually, I was born here in Wales, but I’ve lived so long in Denver that I pass for American.”
“Ah. Here on business?” the woman asked. If she had been British, I’d have wondered what was up, but many decades of living in the US had made even the most personal of questions seem totally natural when asked by a relative stranger.
“You could say that. My mothers live in a small town near the coast. I visit them every six months or so.”
“Mothers? Plural?” Her forehead wrinkled for a moment, then smoothed out quickly with an, “Oh! You mean your mother is…how…interesting.”
My mouth tightened. If she was going to be one of those people who hated on my mothers, I would have a thing or two to tell her.
She shrugged, turned back to warn the still-arguing teens that they had exactly three seconds before she would abandon them to the airport staff, and said simply, “It takes all kinds.”
“It certainly does. Good luck with your trip,” I said politely, and gathering up my things, moved off before she could say anything more. The experience had left me feeling a bit prickly, which in turned made the inevitable delays at the security lines all that much more annoying. But a memory of my mothers’ teaching about tolerance got me through it without once wishing I could remember the spell to give people ingrown toenails.
I had just settled down in the waiting area with all the other people who would be on the flight to Orlando (my connecting flights to Chicago, and then Denver would extend the trip by another seven hours), and pulled out my tablet computer to see if there was any news in the alchemist’s forum which I frequent, when my cell phone buzzed in my jacket pocket.
The number displayed on the phone didn’t ring a bell. I ignored the call, figuring it was just another solicitation to try some service or buy something that I didn’t want, so when the phone buzzed a second time, I started to turn it off.
Mom Two, the text said above the photo of a face almost as familiar as my own. I frowned. I’d had somewhat hurried good-byes earlier with both my moms, hurried because of some bizarre notion they had that I was in danger, and the sooner I got out of Wales, the safer I’d be.
“Hi. What’s up?” I asked, answering the call. “You can’t be missing me already, Mom Two. I left you guys less than…what…four hours ago?”
“Of course we miss you, Gwen. We always miss you when you leave. But that’s not what I wanted to say, although I do, in fact, miss you despite having seen you earlier this afternoon before you went to the airport. Your mother misses you as well, although just at the moment, she’s a bit busy with Mrs. Vanilla. I just wanted to warn you to keep your eyes peeled for that besom in a cherry-red dress.”
“Besom?” I tried to dredge through my mental dictionary. Mom Two, AKA Alice Hill, my mother’s partner for longer than I’d been alive, had once been a headmistress at some posh girl’s school, and frequently used words that most people didn’t recognize. “A woman? Wait, you’re not still talking about that woman who you claimed was chasing me at the shrink’s office yesterday, are you? Because I thought we worked that out.”
“We didn’t work it out. We simply decided that since we lost the besom in the mad dash from the psychologist’s office—which, really, was a complete waste of time since Dr. Gently couldn’t cure you of that wild notion you have that you died and went to heaven and came back to earth—we decided that we’d just stop talking about it, which would placate you. Your mother felt strongly that your last day with us should be a happy one. It was a happy one, wasn’t it?”
“Very happy,” I said, my brain a bit of a whirl with the conversation. Mom Two, when she really got going on a subject, could talk circles around you to the point where you didn’t know which of the many conversational tidbits to follow. I decided to go with the most obvious one. “And I’m not crazy. I did die. I did wake up to find myself in Anwyn, which incidentally isn’t heaven. It’s just an afterlife, like the ones you Wiccans go to when you die.”
“Nothing is like Summerland,” Mom Two said complacently, then evidently clapped a hand over the bottom of her phone for a few seconds, if the muffled voice was anything to go by. “Not even the Welsh version of the afterlife. Especially since your mother tells me that there are all sorts of legends tied up with Anwyn. But we will discuss that another day. I must dash, Gwen. Your mother sends her love. Mrs. Vanilla would most likely send her regards as well, but she doesn’t speak. We just wished to remind you to be on guard. Do not talk to any women with short, dark hair and red wool suits! Shun them, Gwen. Shun them with all the power of your shunningness!”
Mom Two was also prone to making up words where one didn’t exist. “Who’s Mrs. Vanilla?” I asked, a faint sense of unease tingeing my amusement with the conversation. I adored both of my mothers, even though they were sometimes scatty when it came to focusing on the here and now, but as a rule, Mom Two was the more reliable when it came to making sense out of confusion.
“She’s our student.”
“Wait…I thought you guys were taking the entire summer off from classes so that you could focus on renewing your bond to the craft?” Wiccans varied in their beliefs widely, but most found it necessary periodically to recharge their spiritual batteries with some communing with nature, study, and bonding with fellow Wiccans.
“The Lambfreckle School for Womyn’s Magyck is closed until the Autumnal Equinox,” Mom Two said primly.
I winced at the name of their school, just as I did every time I heard it. “One of these days J. K. Rowling is going to hear about you—”
“There is nothing wrong with the name of our school!” Mom Two protested, then put her hand over the phone again. “I must go, Gwen. Have a safe journey, and blessings go with you. Stay away from red-suited women!”
The phone clicked and slowly I lowered it from my ear, wondering why I had a growing sense of unease. Why did they have a student with them if they had closed the school for the summer? Why didn’t my mother get on the phone to say goodbye one last time? It wasn’t like her to at least yell something while Mom Two was talking to me. And was some woman really following me, as they said? If so, why? The moms had never given me an answer to that question. I had a faint idea that perhaps this mysterious woman might be an attempt by them to distract me from something that they didn’t want me to know.
I started to put my phone away, shook my head at my fancies, and despite that, typed out a message for my mother. Who is Mrs. Vanilla?
Who, dear? came the answering text.
Mrs. Vanilla. Mom Two says you have a student with you named Mrs. Vanilla.
Yes. She is our student. Don’t worry. She wanted to come with us.
“Oh, like that’s not going to make me worried as hell,” I muttered as soon as the text appeared on my phone’s screen. I thought briefly of calling my mother, but I had a nasty suspicion she would not answer the phone. She tended to shy away from confrontation if she could help it, leaving Mom Two to do the dirty work.
Where are you? Why would I worry about you having a student? What is going on?
There may be a bit of a fuss, but don’t pay it any mind, my mother texted back. Fear started to grow in the pit of my stomach. What the hell were they up to now? Disregard any mention of kidnapping. She wanted us to save her. It was the only thing we could do.
And that pushed me over the edge. I dialed my mother’s cell number, sure she wasn’t going to answer, and was more than a little surprised when her breathless voice said almost immediately, “Gwenny, I just told you not to worry, didn’t I? And now here you are worrying. Don’t deny it, I can tell you are. Turn right, dear. No, the other right!”
I looked wildly to my right (and left, because long acquaintance with my mother had taught me that she had difficulty telling directions). “What? Why should I turn right?”
“Not you, dear, that was for Alice. Oh, my. No, no, dear, don’t get onto the main roads. Don’t you remember that show on the telly we saw last month?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “They have those spiked things they lay in the road.”
Spiked things? What spiked things? What was she—with a horrible presentment, I suddenly knew. They were on the run from the police.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked, my voice rising loudly at the end of the sentence, enough that everyone around me turned to look. I turned in my plastic seat so that I half-faced the wall behind me, dipping my head down so I could speak sternly, but more quietly, into my phone. “Mother, are you, at this moment, running from the police?”
“Alice, dear, not so fast around corners,” my mother said in a half-shriek. “Poor Mrs. Vanilla is on the floor.”
“Oh, hello, Gwenny. How was your flight home?”
I took a deep breath, but that didn’t go any way to calming what were quickly becoming frazzled nerves, so I took five or six additional breaths.
“Are you hyperventilating?” the man nearest me asked, lowering his newspaper to look at me in obvious concern. “Do you want a paper bag?”
“No, thank you, it’s just my mother driving me crazy as usual,” I said through gritted teeth, and swiveled around even further in my chair until I was almost off it entirely.
“Mother,” I said in a low, mean tone of voice that under normal circumstances, I would never think of using to her. “What. Is. Happening.”
“Lost ‘em!” a triumphant Mom Two said in the background. I slumped sideways in despair, and promptly fell off the chair. By the time I reassured the newspaper man that I was fine, and not in danger of passing out, my mother had hung up her phone.
I moved over to the corner of the waiting area, found a relatively empty spot, and with my back to the room, called her back. “Tell me you didn’t kidnap some old woman and are not at this very moment running from the mortal police.”
“We did not kidnap some old woman and are not at this very moment running from mortal police,” she said promptly.
I waited for the count of three. “Is that true?”
“No, of course it isn’t. But you asked me to say it, so I did.”
Gently, so as not to brain myself, I thumped my forehead against the wall. “Mom, you do remember that it was only six months ago that I was arrested by the Watch because they thought I was you, don’t you?”
“Yes, but they let you out because you aren’t me.”
“They let me out because I had an alibi. They still think I’m you, or at least that blond Watch guy does.” The memory of him had haunted me at odd moments during the last two days.
“What blond watch man?”
“The one who stopped the lawyer from killing me.” Anticipating her next question, I added, “The one you agreed to sell magic to, remember?”
“Of course I remember the lawyer,” she said in a scolding voice. Faintly, oh so faintly, I heard the sound of a police siren coming from my phone. I slumped against the cool wall, closing my eyes for a moment. “He wasn’t a very nice man, but we needed the money, and it’s been decades since anyone from the Watch was interested in us.”
“Centuries,” Mom Two said loudly. “Eighteen-something. Seventies, was it, Mags?”
I was so close to going home. Even now, I could see the plane being serviced by various technical people. In just an hour or two, it would be in the sky, heading toward the US. I could be on that plane.
“No, it had to be longer than that,” Mom argued. “Because they tried to make me sit for one of those sepia-toned photographs, but I kept moving just enough that it turned out blurry. It had to be the 1820s.”
I had the ticket right there. I could be on that plane, leaving my troubles behind me.
“They didn’t have cameras in the 1820s,” Mom Two told her, and behind their voices, the sirens grew louder.
Life would be sane again. No more would I find myself being killed, in the afterlife, or suddenly (and inexplicably) resurrected.
“Daguerreotype! I think that’s the name for it. Gwen, do you remember if that’s what they did?”
I eyed my phone. Just the touch of one finger on its screen, and I could hang up. My mother probably wouldn’t even notice I’d done so for at least several minutes. Carefree, I could blithely go on with my life, leaving my mothers to cope with whatever they’d done with theirs.
I turned around so the wall was to my back, and slid down it until I was sitting on the floor, my forehead resting on my knees. I couldn’t leave them. Not if they had gotten into yet another tight place. There wasn’t even any pretense I could make about having a choice. They were my mothers, and I loved them. They had a knack for getting into trouble, and a disregard for pretty much all forms of common sense, but I loved them, and I couldn’t leave them. Not this way. Not when the Watch so clearly had us in their sights.
“Sooner or later they’re going to follow me to you, and put two and two together,” I told my mother.
“I don’t think Daguerreotypes came out in the 1840s—what was that, Gwenny?”
“The Watch. They may be confused about our identities now, but they’re not stupid. At least the blond guy isn’t. I told him I wasn’t you, and he believed me. They’re going to find you, and then they’ll put you in jail.”
“But dear, we haven’t done anything wrong!”
“You were selling magic to a mortal! That’s so incredibly illegal!”
“But we didn’t actually sell anything to that man. Or the lawyer. We just said we would.”
“And took the money to do so.” I made sure to mention that. It was one of the points that rankled so greatly with me.
“Well, of course we took the money. We needed it.”
“The fact remains that you were poised to engage in illegal activities, but I stopped you from actually doing so. And got killed in the process.”
“She’s going on again about being killed. I do wish she could have had more time with the counselor,” she said to Mom Two before addressing me again. “Gwen, dearest, I am your mother. I think I’d know if my only child was killed.”
I thought seriously about rolling my eyes at both the statement, and the chiding note in her voice. “The point remains that you were about to do something very illegal, and Watch knew that. They sent someone to catch you in the act. The only reason they didn’t is because I went down to tell the lawyer who arranged for the sale to stop threatening you with all sorts of horrible things if you didn’t honor your contract with him. A wholly illegal contract, I’d like to point out.”
“He’s a lawyer, Gwen. I’m sure it was illegal.”
“Where are you?” I changed the subject, knowing the argument was going to go nowhere. We’d had it several times during the last few days, and it always ended up the same: my mothers refused to admit that they’d done anything wrong. “The siren sounds louder. Can you pull over and cast a spell to escape the mortal police?”
“Of course we can cast an escape spell. Any third year pupil of Lambfreckle can cast a basic escape spell, and your other mother and I are more than two hundred years old, so we certainly know—”
“Mom,” I interrupted. “You know what I mean.”
“I do, and much as I love you, Gwenny, I’m insulted that you think we can’t take care of ourselves and get away from mortals. Oh, dear, Alice, Mrs. Vanilla is on the floor again. Perhaps if you pulled over I could right her—”
I stood up, and without even one poignant glance at the plane that was being fueled so that it could fly me back home, collected my luggage, and started the long journey back to the train station that connected to the airport. “Where are you?” I asked as I wove my way through the people who milled around the shops and airline kiosks.
“Outside of Emylwn,” she answered, naming the small coastal town where they had lived since before I was born.
I thought for a few minutes while I continued to forge my way against the stream of people arriving for evening flights to the continent. “They are going to know you’re in that area.”
“Pah. I told you that we can escape the police.”
“No, not them. I’m not worried about the mortals. The Watch found me in Malwod-Upon-Ooze, and that’s only, what, ten miles away from Emylwn?” I shook my head. “That’s too close for comfort.”
I glanced up at the sign at the entrance to the airport, and made a swift decision while my mother was protesting that the Watch didn’t even have an inkling of what was going on.
“The mortal police don’t know that the Otherworld Watch even exists, Gwenny. There’s no reason to worry that they’ll call them. Besides, they—the mortal police, that is—have no idea who we are. Or rather, what we are.”
Evidently, Mom had put me on speaker phone, because I could hear Mom Two say, “That’s right. Mrs. Vanilla was in a mortal retirement home when we snatched her.”
“Snatched?” I said, freezing in the act of going through a door to the escalator that led down to the trains.
“Rescued,” my mother amended. “We rescued her. We didn’t kidnap her at all.”
“Then why are the police chasing you?” I hefted my massive bag and bumped my way down the escalator, apologizing to people it smacked. One or two people looked askance at me as I descended, but I sent up a silent blessing for stoic Brits who wouldn’t be caught dead blatantly listening to someone’s phone conversation.
“There was a little issue with the rescue,” Mom Two admitted in her usual brusque voice. “We had to change one or two attendants into frogs.”
“Just temporarily,” my mother hurriedly added. “Just for the time it took to rescue Mrs. Vanilla from her captors.”
I shoved some coins into a machine and accepted the ticket it spat out at me, hauling my luggage down another level to the train I wanted. “Do you have any idea of how bad this is? Not only have you kidnapped a mortal woman—yes, I said kidnapped!” I ignored the sputtered protests from both mothers. “Not only did you do something completely heinous as to take an old lady from her caregivers, but you also magicked up mortals. You know how dangerous that is! What were you thinking? That no one would notice that people had suddenly been turned into frogs?”
“No one did notice that,” Mom Two said in a disapproving tone. “Your mother told you it was a temporary spell. Only lasted two or three minutes.”
“Then why—” I parked my luggage at a grimy bench and took a deep, acidic-scented breath. “—why are the police chasing you? Why didn’t you just go home?”
“We might have forgotten that mortals have those spy cameras everywhere,” my mother admitted.
“Big brother!” Mom Two added righteously. “He’s everywhere, watching us all!”
I rubbed my hand over my face, wondering how on earth I was going to pull my mothers out of the hole into which they’d managed to dig. It was possible, just barely possible, that they could magic their way out of trouble with the mortal police, if the thing was planned properly. But once the Watch got wind of it…I groaned aloud. “We are so doomed. They’re already in the area. The blond guy is looking for you. They’ll hear that you stole a mortal and used magic in front of other mortals, and that’ll be all she wrote.”
“Who wrote what,” Mom asked in benign interest.
“We have to meet up,” I said quickly, glancing down the platform and noting at least three security cameras. Even now I was being filmed. I had to get somewhere out of sight of those cameras, had to get my mothers tucked away somewhere we could talk. I needed all the details of their latest shenanigans before I could put things right. But where could we meet? Where could we find the anonymity we needed?
A dirt-crusted woman shuffled past me to the nearest trash can, digging through it and muttering to herself under her breath. Her coat was matted and filthy, long having given up any pretense at color. She extracted several pieces of trash and shoved them deep into a plastic carrier bag clutched in one of her grubby hands. A piece of paper fluttered out of her bag as she moved off.
I stared at the leaflet advertising a tourist event, then sat up straighter. “Mom, go to Bute.”
“Go where, dear?”
“But it’s night time. One should never go to the park at night. I’ve warned you about the bad people who can be found there after dark.”
“They’re doing illuminations of the castle this week. All week, while they celebrate the history of Cardiff. There will be fireworks, and music, and hordes of people. It’s the perfect place to hide in plain sight. I’ll meet you at the animal wall in—” I glanced at my watch and did some quick mental calculations. “Forty minutes, OK?”
“I don’t think we—”
“Meet me there,” I said in a growl that should have scared the pants off of her. A whoosh of air from the arched tunnel end of the platform warned of the near arrival of a train. “Or else.”
“Or else what?” she asked, clearly curious.
“Or else I’ll invoke some very bad magic!”
“Oh, Gwenny,” she said with a dismissive laugh. “You couldn’t do bad magic if you had a spell book in front of you.”
“Try me,” I snarled, and hung up my phone.
I had a lot of things to do, and little time to do them.