Mr. MacGregor had retreated behind the counter of his shop. I couldn’t blame him. This was probably the most excitement his Corner Station had ever seen.
Two dozen police cruisers crowded the tiny front lot, spilling back out onto the road. A pair of ambulances were carefully weaving their way through the mess, followed by a caravan of newspaper cars and at least one radio station truck. When they couldn’t get their vehicles any closer, the journalists abandoned them on the side of the road and made their way on foot, juggling cameras, bags of flashbulbs, notepads, and pens.
By the time the first cruiser had come roaring into the station, my crying fit was passed. Mr. MacGregor found a low stool for me, pressed a cup of hot tea into my hands, murmured something along the lines of “It’ll be all right,” and then took shelter behind the counter.
I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was after four. Less then eight hours before the potamide would drown everyone on the Psyche.
I drew a deep, steadying breath, but anxiety still twisted through my stomach.
I looked up as the woman who had addressed me held out her badge. The stool was really low. I had to look way up. Her fedora sat solidly on her head, and her kinky black hair was pulled back into an efficient bun. The crease of her grey trousers was sharp and there was not a single wrinkle in her coat. “Agent Natsinet Alazar Senai, Federal Department of Criminal Investigation. May I ask you a few questions?”
A pair of equally put-together agents (male, blonde, muscular) flanked her on either side, eyeballing me silently as she tucked her badge into her jacket pocket. I frowned. “I explained everything to Detective Sallali. Is he here yet? And — why are you here? How did you get here so fast?”
“We were already in the area on other business. And I’m sure he’s on his way. It’s quite a mess out there. I understand there is a deadline attached to the potamide’s demands.”
My gaze skipped to the clock again, and then back to Agent Natsinet. “Yes, noon. Or at least noon as the potamide understands it. Genii loci don’t exactly rely on clocks. We need to figure out who took the potamide’s child and where they went.”
“Any chance of negotiation? Getting an extension, or getting the potamide to change its demands?”
I blinked. “No. None. This is a potamide we’re taking about. A genius loci so old that it saw the last Ice Age. Maybe the one before that, too. An order has been given. There is nothing to negotiate.”
Agent Natsinet shared a look with the two blondes. “Not that I doubt your abilities, but perhaps we should put a call in to the Temple. Get another dedicant out here.”
My breath caught. The pearl of water sat solid and cold against the inside of my cheek. I felt my face flush. I pushed myself to my feet, holding the agent’s gaze. “I was born under the sign of water, under the planet of water. I entered the Temple of Oceanos and Tethys when I was fifteen years old. I earned my first veil before I was eighteen. I have communed with naiads, spoken with limnads and eleionomae, swum with haliae, and danced with oceanids. I have even served as the Voice of Tethys Herself. Do not presume to question my dedication or my abilities. I am a priestess of the waters.”
The silence within the shop was absolute. A shocking absence of sound compared to the noise outside.
The sweet tang of cloves touched my nose. I inhaled, tasting the scent on my tongue.
His voice was rough, but firm; almost wry. “I believe an apology is in order. But you’re a smart woman, Agent Natsinet. I don’t need to tell you that, do I?”
She turned her head to narrow her eyes at him, then slowly turned back to me. “I apologize, Priestess NicCath. Insult was not my intent. I meant only to suggest another avenue that we might pursue, in hopes of saving everyone on the Psyche.”
Half an apology. Plus a dig at my personal ethics. As if I were not as determined to save them all.
Fine. I would accept the first and ignore the second. I didn’t have time to do otherwise.
I dropped back onto the low stool. The metal squeaked. “Apology accepted, Agent Natsinet. Morning, Sallali.”
“Morning, yourself.” He carried the scent of cloves with him across the room, cigarette in one hand. He tilted his head, dark gaze studying me. “You look awful.”
I scowled and returned his appraisal. His normally rich copper brown skin was tinged grey with exhaustion, there were circles under his eyes, and his black hair was mussed and dull under his fedora. His tie was partially undone, and his navy suit jacket hung open. “Right back at you. I thought you were sleeping when I called?”
“I was. For about thirty minutes.” He waved his clove cigarette. “Agent Natsinet here has had us running around for the last three days — I know, I know. Classified.”
The agent closed her mouth and glared.
“We have a lead yet on the kid’s location or who took it?”
Natsinet frowned. “The child can change form, yes?”
I shrugged. “It’s the demigod offspring of an ancient river deity and a mortal. It’s whatever it wants to be. And, no. All I have to go on is what the potamide told me. The mortal parent is apparently deceased.”
Behind the counter, Mr. MacGregor grunted. “Hunh.”
“The child was taken recently, maybe earlier today. Or, that is, yesterday. From the banks of the river, in broad daylight. And it is now someplace where the waters no longer sing.”
I spun around on the stool and we all looked at Mr. MacGregor.
He flushed and shifted nervously on his feet. “Uh, well, it’s just … you see. Nika Vassilakis.”
“And who is she?” Natsinet asked, pulling out a notepad.
“She died, about a month back. Hung herself.” Mr. MacGregor ran a hand through his hair, his voice tinged with confusion and sympathy. “Poor girl. That one was just born sad. Her parents tried everything. Priests and doctors and what have you. She tried more than once to kill herself. Even threw herself in the Ohi:yo, but the river chucked her back out again. Happens, sometimes. Or sometimes the dryads will drag them out. Anyway, after that, her parents kept her locked up in her room. The baby came along a few months later, but no one knew who the father was. Guess I do now ….” He shrugged, his voice trailing off.
Natsinet tapped a pencil against her notepad. “Any other recent deaths?”
“Well … there is a war on. So … I suppose ….”
Agent Natsinet’s mouth thinned in annoyance. “What about the location the potamide mentioned. Waters not singing?”
MacGregor shrugged helplessly, shaking his head.
I cleared my throat and smiled up at him. “In that case, could you please give us directions to the Vassilakis residence?”
“Yes, of course.” He started making weird angles with his hands, waving his arms in multiple directions at once. “You head up to the old scarecrow and hang a right, stay on that road ’til you pass the pair of dead apple trees, then —”
“Never mind.” Sallali stubbed out his cigarette on the counter and tossed it into the trash. “I’ll drive, you navigate.”
“You have been running around for three days.” I tried not to stare at the mess of maps, food wrappers, and empty coffee cups that littered the floor of Sallali’s police department vehicle. Tried, and failed.
Sallali spun the wheel as he pulled the car off the shoulder and onto the pavement, heading away from MacGregor’s Corner Station. Agent Natsinet and the two blondes followed in a second car, while the reporters vainly tried to get around the officers blocking the road and join the caravan. “Yeah. Cleaning it all out was not high on my list of priorities when I finally got off duty.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you.”
“Yes, you should.” He turned to glance at me quickly, his expression impossible to read in the low reflection from the headlights. “And never apologize for calling me.”
MacGregor coughed from the backseat. “Uh, just a mile up the road and then go right.”
Sallali nodded absently.
I flexed my cut hand. The wound was still red and ragged, but had stopped bleeding.
“Of course,” I muttered.
“My blood. That was how the potamide knew to find me on the boat. That was why it grabbed the Psyche. To get to me.”
A heavy silence filled the car.
The tires shushed over the road.
“Um, you’re coming up on the turn.”
“Thanks.” Sallali flicked on the turn signal and pressed down on the brake, slowing the vehicle. “Not your fault. No matter what happens.”
I bit the inside of my lower lip, feeling the pearl of cold water as it slipped to the other side of my mouth.
I braced my feet as the car swung a right. The headlights passed over a desiccated scarecrow in patched clothes. Its head was half-caved in from lack of stuffing and there seemed to be something nesting in the hollow of its chest. A rudimentary herm of stacked flat stones were piled at its feet, a few offering coins glinting.
The road narrowed, the trees pulling in close. I peered out the window, unsure if I was seeing dryads running among the trunks or if the shadows and moon and anxiety were playing tricks on my eyes.
“How are your parents?”
I didn’t realize that I had even spoken until Sallali answered. “Better. They’re all settled in with Frank and the kids. Still want me to move down there.”
I kept my head turned towards the window, catching flashes of his reflection and my own. “Are you going to?”
“No.” A pause. “They have Frank and a passel of grandkids to keep them busy and happy. They’re already worried about my sister, about what she’s doing in Europa. If I moved in, too, they would just worry every time I strapped on my badge and headed out the door.”
“They’re your parents. They worry about you now, and they’re a thousand miles away.”
Sallali opened his mouth, but there was a cough from the back seat. “Better slow down. You’re coming up fast on the junction.”
Sallali sat up straighter, focused again on the road. “Which way?”
“Hard left, go about fifty feet, and then a hard right.”
A pair of dead apple trees appeared in the beam of the headlights, their dried branches hanging so low that I heard them scrape across the top of the car. Immediately, a junction in the road popped up, one lane curving softly to the right, the other making a hard left.
Sallali hit the brakes and the turn signal. Behind us, tires squealed and Agent Natsinet leaned on her horn in annoyance.
I grit my teeth and grabbed the seat belt as the car slid on the gravel, then straightened. “A little more warning next time, please, Mr. MacGregor.”
“Sorry. Sounded like an important conversation. I didn’t want to interrupt.”
I grabbed the seat belt again as the car slooed to the right around a sharp turn. Another aggravated blast of horn from behind us.
“She’s not going to invite you on anymore classified missions after this,” I warned Sallali.
“Wouldn’t break my heart.”
“Uh, we’re almost there. A mile straight ahead, then left across a low creek. The road’ll go up and curve and the farm is right there at the backside of the hill.”
“How far from the stream to the top of the hill?” Sallali asked.
“Maybe a quarter mile?”
The tires thudded and water splashed across the windows. I lifted a hand, pressing my fingers to the glass to trace the liquid as it narrowed into rivulets and began to stream away.
The water stopped, stilled on the glass, and beaded under my fingertips.
The pearl of water in my mouth warmed, responding to the presence of the potamide.
“The child isn’t here.”
“What?” Sallali tapped the brakes, cranking the wheel to the left and pulling to a rough stop on the far side of the stream.
Agent Natsinet slid her vehicle to a loud stop beside us. Her door almost banged into mine when she jumped out, but she caught it in time and closed it carefully. Her attention caught, she bent over and peered at the water beads. Her gaze jumped, catching mine.
I lifted my hand away and the water dropped, raining down the window.
When I shifted to open the door, Natsinet moved out of the way. She held onto the frame as I squeezed out, her lips pursed.
“Water witchery? I was unaware that you possessed divine ancestry, Priestess NicCath.”
“We all do, if you go back far enough, Agent. The child isn’t here. The potamide is in the stream, or part of the potamide. Connected to it. It would know if its child was this close.”
I felt the car shift as Sallali clambered out, and heard his low warning to Mr. MacGregor to stay put.
“It’s still worth checking out the Vassilikis residence.” Natsinet motioned for the two blondes to proceed up the hill. “Maybe there’s someone here we can talk to. Or we might find some information on this place the potamide told you about, where the waters no longer sing.”
Dance shoes were utterly inappropriate for climbing a hill and sneaking up on a farm house in the darkest hours of the morning; but they were all I had. Following along behind Sallali, stepping where he stepped, I moved around animal dung, watery depressions, and thick clumps of grass.
We stopped just short of the top of the hill, Natsinet and Sallali both dropping into a low crouch. In my heavy skirt, I resorted to kneeling.
The Vassilikis residence was a dark rectangle jutting two stories into the air. A single lightbulb illuminated the screened front porch. There was a gravel patch, but no car, and flower beds that looked sadly neglected. Further away stood a barn and a grain silo; fields off to the left, and forest to the right.
Natsinet motioned with a tilt of her head. Sallali nodded, hand on his sidearm. We all stood and cautiously made our way along the edge of the road, around the curve, and across the gravel patch. I caught a snatch of movement, and hoped that it was the two blondes sneaking around to the back of the house.
Sallali veered to the left, pressed himself against the side of the house, and peered through the dark front window. Natsinet waited, her hand on the porch door. When Sallali silently shook his head, she pulled the door open and carefully stepped onto the porch.
The boards creaked.
She grimaced, motioning me to stay outside, as Sallali climbed up after her. I grit my jaw impatiently, shifting on my feet as Natsinet reached for the front door.
The handle turned easily and the door swung open. I could see a front altar, with a small shrine to Hestia. The candle was out, and the bread was dry. The house beyond was completely dark.
“Mr. and Mrs. Vassilikis? This is Agent Natsinet Alazar Senai of the Federal Department of Criminal Investigation, requesting hospitality and guest rights.”
“Once again, Agent Natsinet requesting hospitality of the residents, with full rights and respect in return.”
Natsinet and Sallali pulled their weapons and stepped into the house. They clicked on lights as they went, flicking switches to illuminate the living area, the kitchen, and a study. The blondes came in through the back kitchen door. Natsinet waved them upstairs, and followed. I could hear the ceiling creaking under their steps as I waited in the front door, craning my head to see what I could.
There was a layer of dust over everything, and the fireplace had obviously not been cleaned for quite some time. That might explain the ease of our approach and entry: such poor care of the residence might have driven away the agathos daimon, leaving the house open and without a spiritual protector.
Sallali circled through the ground floor rooms again, his lips thin.
He still looked exhausted.
I shouldn’t have called him.
The stairs groaned as Natsinet came back down. She shook her head. “Empty, and apparently for a while. MacGregor was right about the baby. There’s a small nursery in one of the bedrooms.”
Done waiting, I crossed the threshold and climbed the narrow steps. A pretty floral print covered the walls, interrupted only by a line of family photographs. At the top, I found two bedrooms, a small bathroom, and an even smaller closet. The nursery was tucked into a corner of the back bedroom. One of the blondes was digging through the dresser. He looked up when I came in, then went back to work.
Crib. Blanket. A stuffed horse toy.
That was all.
No, that wasn’t all.
I reached into the crib, running my hand over the sheet and mattress. They were faintly wet.
I tugged on the water, pulling it out of the fabric to slide along my fingers and pool in the palm of my hand. As I did so, the pearl of water hummed against the inside of my cheek.
Sallali leaned over my shoulder, studying the water in my hand. “Well, we know this is the right place. That’s something.”
“But where did they go from here?”
He silently shook his head and shrugged.
Frowning, I debated what to do with the water in my hand. Dumping it in the sink felt … disrespectful. Hestia had no specific connection to rivers or children, but She did watch over the household. Perhaps leaving the water on Her altar, this remnant of the child who had once lived here, would be best; maybe even curry favor with the Goddess.
Decision made, I turned and made my way back to the stairs. As I did, my attention was caught by the line of family photographs. They seemed to be in roughly chronological order, with the oldest at the top: a small group of people, including a priest of Demeter, standing in front of the partially-built house. That photo appeared to date from some eighty years ago. Birth, wedding, and graduation photos followed; several that had obviously been taken during Anthesteria; a group of young girls in bear costumes, preparing to dance for Artemis; the dedication of a herm to Pan, probably in the forest nearby.
The Vassilikis family appeared to be fairly strict in their devotions. I saw no evidence that they honored any spirits outside those of their ancestral pantheon — not even the spirits of the land they lived on.
That was … odd.
I was a priestess of Oceanus and Tethys, but I paid regular devotions to water Deities and powers from other pantheons; respect was required where primal powers were concerned. Most people were neither arrogant nor stupid enough to ignore the spirits who inhabited the sky, land, trees, and water all around them. They learned the spirits’ names, learned their rites and offerings, and honored them accordingly.
Except for the Vassilikis family.
I had to wonder if there was a connection to their daughter’s suicide, a girl who had loved — and been loved by — the local river Deity, and who had created a demi-God child with that river. Had there been conflict with her parents? Had they refused to allow her to see the potamide? Punished her for the pregnancy?
I hoped not.
At the bottom of the stairs, I tipped my hand and poured the water onto the small plate with the dried up bread. I found a lighter tucked into a drawer under the shrine, and relit the candle. The flame cast a reddish-orange glow across the icon of Hestia. I pressed my hand over my heart and whispered a short prayer.
“Hestia, guardian of the home, please help us to find those who once honored you within these walls. Help us to find the child of the waters, and return it safely to its parent.”
I heard footsteps slowly coming down the stairs. Sallali, taking his time as he examined the photographs.
“Looks like the family has been here for about three generations,” I said.
He stopped in front of one picture about halfway down the stairs. He squinted, leaning closer, and then pulled it off the wall. He continued to stare at the picture.
“What is it?” I asked.
He skipped down the last few steps, flipping the frame around so that I could see the photograph: three people in overalls, fishing poles in hand. A tiny cabin stood in the background, a small body of water off to the left.
I frowned. “Never heard of it.”
“That’s because it doesn’t exist anymore. A quake about fifty years ago diverted the stream that fed it. The lake dried up and the limnades who lived there moved — to Lake Pemuteneyig, I think.” When I blinked at him, he shrugged, looking mildly embarrassed. “Dry lake beds are relatively flat. Good for racing. I’ve taken my bike out there a few times.”
A flush of hope spread through my chest. “Agent Natsinet!”
[End Part Two. The conclusion will appear in the January 2022 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]