The November wind was bitingly cold, making my eyes water and my cheeks burn; the ‘please knock’ note taped over the doorbell was fluttering so hard and so fast I was surprised it was still holding on at all. I only had to rap on the door twice before I saw the curtains twitch, and a moment later it opened, warm air rushing out with the mixed smell of cooking and baking, and something clean and softly floral and a bit like my mother’s favorite hand lotion.
I held up my briefcase, a shield and an excuse in the face of the flat, slightly guarded expression Charity Carpenter was leveling my way. “Mrs. Carpenter,” I said. “I believe you’re expecting me?”
Her expression didn’t change, but half my job description involves reading through a world-class poker face, and I saw the guardedness go a bit more resentful, and a lot more resigned. She nodded and stepped back, leaving the door open for me to prove whether or not I could come in, and when I did, tipped her hand to the mat just inside the door. “You can leave your shoes here, Mister Hendricks. Please come through to the kitchen.”
All in all, it was one of the politest orders I’d ever received, even with John’s Gentleman mask super-glued on, and I hurried to comply.
A grey wookie came down the stairs on four legs while I was toeing off my boots, and padded a slow circle around me, sniffing at my feet. I’d never really gotten to know Dresden’s dog, but couldn’t imagine that there were many others this size wandering around Chicago, or at least not with Dresden’s old allies, and I took a guess. “Dresden’s?”
“They were a package deal,” Charity said, looking at us from the entranceway to the kitchen, and I nodded, slowly bending my knees to get a little closer to the dog-- not that I really needed too, he’d probably be taller than me if he stood on his hind legs-- softening my voice.
“Mouse, right?” I said. “How’s it going, Mouse?”
The big tail wagged gently and he nosed at my hand, urging me to scratch under his chin, before turning and trailing Charity to the kitchen, wedging himself under the kitchen table and folding down to the floor.
The kitchen was large, well-lit and clean in a used and looked after sort of way, not a sparkling one. The table, and now Mouse, was tucked into a nook that it must have been built to fit, out of the way and just the right size to leave space for the many chairs pushed in along one side and the long bench that ran down the other. Charity gestured to it with a, “Please, have a seat. Can I get you some coffee, tea, anything else?”
“Coffee would be wonderful,” I said, folding down onto one of the solid wood chairs as she turned to give us both a few minutes to get ready. “Thank you.” I debated taking my coat off, and opted just to open it, unwrapping my scarf so it hung around my neck. She didn’t want me here, but she was being gracious about it. The least I could do was not look like I was moving in. Mouse sniffed at my ankles and rested his chin on my feet.
Last time I’d been here, I’d never made it inside. I’d been half-dead and holed up to rest and recover in the work shed out back, but the Carpenter family home looked exactly like how I’d have expected it to, exactly like what it was: loved, lived-in, chaotic. A contained chaos, though. Tidy, comfortable, navigable; accents instead of focus. There were some little plastic figures I couldn’t identify lined up on one of the kitchen window ledges, and I’d passed a stack of comic books and a board game spread out on the coffee table in the front room. The family room across from the kitchen had a big basket of toys in one corner and a child-sized primary-coloured tent pitched beside the TV, pushed far away from the fire roaring away in the fireplace.
The Carpenter home was easily four times the size of Mom’s old house, but two kids apparently do about the same about of damage as eight-- or five, our intel putting the two older boys away for college, and Molly Carpenter just away. Either that or Charity Carpenter was an expert at keeping this kind of chaos in hand. Going by her quick, efficient movements at the kitchen counter, I was leaning toward the latter.
There was a baby monitor on the kitchen counter nearest me. If I strained, I could just hear the faintest sounds of soft breathing, some stuffed-sounding snuffling. Maybe the kid had a cold. The chill and snow had moved in early, and she’d come from south of the border-- not to mention the hellishness of how she’d gotten here, and how worn down she would have been.
I spread my files out on the kitchen table, which could probably seat an army-- and going by the two ovens and restaurant-sized refrigerator, Charity cooked to feed one. She set a plate of banana bread in front of me, still warm, a tray with sugar, cream, and two cups of coffee, and pulled out the chair to sit at the head of the table. She took her cup, hands wrapped around it, knuckles white and skin dry, and transferred her hard stare from the steam still rising from it to me.
“How’s the kid?” I asked in an undertone, and Charity gave me a flat look.
“Monsters killed her entirely family, she’s with a bunch of strangers who barely speak Spanish, and she was in a magical coma for a week. She’s miserable, Mister Hendricks.”
I nodded, and said: “But how is she? Do we need to get protections on her? She showing signs of thrall? Curses? Backlash from the death?”
“No.” Charity’s opinion sounded professional. Maybe it was; her church doesn’t take this kind of thing lightly. “She’s just scared. And hurt. She has nightmares, she doesn’t like it in Chicago, she wants to go home, and she can’t. There isn’t a potion for that.”
Anger; I understood that. I know how monsters can rip a life apart, how little it feels like you can do in the aftermath.
“You tell her they’re dead?” All of them, every last one.
“She knows there was an accident. That her home and family are gone.” It wasn’t exactly an answer, but the way Charity’s voice had gone a little dry and rough, the lines around her mouth sharp and deep with the way it turned down, made it one. “Yes. She understands. She wants to go home.”
“Has she tried to make a break for it?”
“Not yet. I’m sure it’ll just be a matter of time.” Charity rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “We’re taking shifts staying with her, when she’s not asleep. Mostly she sleeps. She caught the flu, not that she had much energy before that.” A quick glance to the baby monitor on the counter, still emitting nothing but the occasional soft snuffle.
I handed over the papers; new identity, all the forms and numbers that make up a person, a nice verifiable adoption certificate. Charity looked at them with a kind of exhausted defiance.
“Doesn’t she have family?” she asked, not for the first time since this started. “People she knows?” In her own country, instead of exporting her north like a kidnap victim, I mentally filled in the blanks for her, because it’s not like the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
“None that were willing to risk it.” Local politics. People from little Maggie Mendoza’s neck of the woods weren’t willing to believe the Red Court was gone yet, not without proof; none of them were willing to risk being the next family to be torn to shreds. Those who weren’t in the know weren’t safe enough to leave her with, and far enough away that they were strangers to her nearly as much as the Carpenters. It was cruel, and practical, and it gave John fits.
Charity took the papers, angry.
“She needs to be dead,” I said quietly. “Everybody knows that this kid is a big deal now. They don’t know why.” I wasn’t exactly clear on it myself. “But she needs to have a new life.” I had suspicions. So did John. I was pretty sure we were right, and just as certain that this wasn’t something to go digging around in. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Better to be unsure then have a dead kid.
“Some life,” Charity said bitterly. “She doesn’t deserve this.”
“This is her new passport,” I said instead of answering, because we both knew that no one deserved this. There was no point in saying it. “New birth certificate. Immigration papers. Brand new Social.” I gestured at the papers she was gripping. “The adoption certificate, a fabricated birth parents’ history and family background, and school records. If there’s anything at all from before, get rid of it.”
“Just like that,“ she said.
I couldn’t entirely read her tone-- biting, resigned, tired, maybe disappointed. She felt for the kid. Was sympathetic, empathetic. And plenty cynical. She was a good person, an experienced mother. Probably would have been my first choice for something like this, if I’d had a choice in it at all. I didn’t even know how much of a choice she’d had, when it came down to it. Michael Carpenter had pretty much made that call for everyone, before anyone else had even caught their breath. And the family had been wonderful. Had rolled with the punches, kept little Maggie Mendoza safe and as healthy as could be expected. Something damn hard to do, when the whole supernatural realm was imploding, and one little girl was at the centre of it all.
Didn’t mean that this wasn’t a big thing to ask a family to do. A big thing to ask a parent to do, to ask anyone to do, when it would run the very high risk of bringing monsters to her door.
Charity sighed and put the papers down, picking the top one back up to read. “Is any of this accurate?”
“Medical history, to the best of our knowledge.”
She arched her eyebrows at me. “I see. I suppose I have some reading up to do, then-- oh, Maggie, honey,” she said, just as the hairs on the back of my neck all stood up, and I connected a slight creaking sound with a snuffle that wasn’t coming from the baby monitor.
I turned slowly, fixing a smile on my face, and was met with a red-nosed little girl in slightly too large 101 Dalmatians pajamas rubbing at her eyes, her hair a wild, tangled-looking mess. She sniffed, coughing weakly.
Charity was already up and then kneeling down beside her. “Couldn’t sleep, honey? Do you want some water? Agua?”
“Si,” she mumbled, staring over Charity’s shoulders at me.
I hadn’t really used Spanish since my twenties, but I managed to stumble my way through introducing myself as Nathan, and asking how she was feeling.
She stared at me some more instead of answering, retreating behind Charity’s back with her cup of water as soon as Charity brought it over to her. That happens with kids. I’m a big guy. I just smiled and looked away, and could feel her eyes on me while I listened to her start to drink, cough, and drink some more.
We engaged in the world’s most passive aggressive staring contest, her keeping a wary, unwavering gaze on me from the corners of her eyes, me determinedly looking in the other direction, sipping at my coffee. Eventually her gaze shifted down to the banana bread on the table.
“Are you hungry, sweetie?” Charity asked. “Would you like some banana bread? Ah, plátano? Pan de plátano?”
Another quiet "Si," and Charity urged her towards the table. “I’ll get it. Sit down.”
Maggie eyed me dubiously but sat down across from me, slumped on the bench, and snuffled weakly. I pulled out a tissue packet, and put one down where she could reach it, and then pulled out my iPad to more effectively ignore her.
She took the tissue and blew inefficiently, watching me tap at the iPad the whole time, picking at her food. There was a shifting from under the table, and a much louder snuffling than Maggie was making, and I saw a grey muzzle poke up from under the table where Maggie was sitting. She obligingly handed down a few bites of banana bread. The dog sure wasn’t going hungry.
I kept half an eye on Maggie, and the rest on my screen as I tapped away at a translation app, trying to find the easiest way to give the pitch I was pulling together. Maggie obviously had something else in mind though, hesitantly asking, “Angry Birds?”
I stared at her. “Si,” I said, opening the folder. “Just a sec.”
I slid the iPad over, the game loading up, and watched as she frowned and concentrated her way through the first few levels.
“Do you speak English, Maggie? ¿Hablas inglés?”
Her eyes flicked to me, and then back down to the screen. Charity was watching us from across the kitchen, wiping the banana bread crumbs off the counter.
“Not very much. A little English?”
Maggie gave me a guarded look after demolishing a pig fort.
“You’re going to need to learn more,” I said. “Me llamo Nathan, do you remember? I’m your new tutor. Inglés maestro. Your English teacher.”
Charity straightened, frowning.
“We’ll meet every couple days. Do you understand?” She didn’t answer. “That’s all right,” I said. “We’ll learn together.”
Maggie stared at me, and pulled the iPad a little closer to herself, hunching around it.
“I’ll work out a schedule with you,” I said to Charity. “We’ll meet more often at the beginning, and go from there.”
Charity sighed, turning and pulling down a large calendar from the wall above one of the counters. “I suppose this is better than some strange men parked at the end of street watching the house.”
I kept my face impassive.
“I know,” she waved a hand. “You. Mister Marcone. Have been checking up on us, Mister Hendricks. You don’t have to hide it.” She set the calendar down on the table. “Things are busy this month, and next. The holidays. But during the school day, until she’s registred and okay to go, or on weekend afternoons,” she offered, and I pulled out my phone to check my own schedule, until we found some dates that worked for both of us.
Maggie must have had tabs on us, because as soon as Charity took the calendar away, she eyed me hesitantly, then stabbed the home button, pushing the iPad back to me.
“I’ll bring it on Thursday,” I said. “Jueves. You can play more after our lesson.” Which gave me three days to learn how to teach English. And explain to John what I’d just decided. And talk him out of his sulk. Yeah, I’d come into this prepared.
“Jueves,” Maggie repeated, and sniffed. I fished another tissue from the packet and handed it over.
“Adiós, Maggie,” I said, and on a whim, held out my fist.
She stared at it dubiously, rubbing at her nose with the tissue, then slowly reached out her own fist to tap against mine.
“Okay, kiddo,” I said, smiling. I hadn’t been sure she’d know the gesture, but it looked like we understood each other well enough. “You’re going to be just fine.”
Charity walked me to the front door, and watched as I pulled my boots on, her hands resting on her hips. “No other options?” she asked tiredly, her tone tinged with frustration. There were no winners here.
I shook my head. “Not right now. Not yet.” Maybe not ever. The supernatural had a long memory. Who knew when Maggie would be safe.
“Well.” Charity shot me a considering look, cracked half a brittle smile. “She was scared of the dog at first too, and now they’re inseparable. Is there anything I can do for Thursday?”
“I’ll get back to you, “ I said, and knew I wasn’t fooling her for a minute.
“On Thursday, Mister Hendricks,” she said, and politely pushed me out the door.
I made my way back to my car on autopilot, mind shuffling through my options, my obligations, my plans. I’d dropped off the documents like I’d needed to. Checked up on the kid liked I’d wanted to. And now I had three days to learn how to be a little girl’s teacher, when we didn’t even speak the same language.
My car was still a little warm when I got into it, turned the heat on full blast, and sent John a quick text that I was on my way back to the office. I nodded to Phan and Berkley when I rolled past their post and took the corner at the end of the Carpenters’ street, flicked on the radio to a commercial cheerfully promising the best deal on flights home for Thanksgiving, and tried to shake the feeling that I’d just taken on a job that was a lot bigger than I was ready for.