The man eyed me. "You want something?" The cigarette remained stuck to his lower lip, moving as he spoke.
"I'm an agent of the Order investigating the disappearance of witches belonging to the Sisters of the Crow coven. I was told the head witch lived in the Honeycomb."
"And who is that?" He pointed to Julie behind me.
"Daughter of a witch in Esmeralda's coven. Her mom's missing. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"No. You got an ID on you?"
I reached for the leather wallet I carried on a cord around my neck and took out my Order ID. He motioned me closer. I approached and passed it to him. He turned it over. The small rectangle of silver in the lower right corner of the card gleamed, catching a stray ray of the sun.
"Is that real silver?" he asked. The cigarette drew an elaborate pattern in the air.
"Yes." Silver took enchantment better than most metals.
The man gave me a quick glance and rubbed at the silver through the clear plastic coating. "How much is it worth?"
Here we go. "You're asking the wrong question."
"You should be asking if your life is worth a square inch of enchanted silver."
He gave the card another cursory glance. "You talk big."
I snapped my hand at his face. He shied back and I handed his cigarette back to him. "These things can kill you."
He stuck the cigarette back into his mouth and returned my ID. "Name's Custer."
The canvas shielding the truck shifted, revealing a lean Latino woman next to a black cheiroballista. Built like a giant crossbow, the cheiroballista was small but accurate and delivered with amazing power. It could put a bolt through a vehicle door at close range. The Latino woman gave me a hard stare. She had the kind of eyes one gets after life hammered out all softness.
I held her gaze. Two can play the staring game. "I'll pay for the information."
I passed two fifties to Custer. Bye-bye, phone bill.
"Trailer twenty-three," she said. "The yellow one. Head left, then turn right when the path forks."
"If I have to take anything, I'll write a receipt."
"That's between you and her. We don't want any shit from the Order."
I held another twenty out. "Know anything about Esmeralda?"
The woman nodded. "She was power hungry. Liked to scare people. I heard she tried to enter one of the older covens, but she played the game too much and tried to take over, so they kicked her out. She's been threatening to 'show them all' ever since. Last I heard she made her own coven. Don't know how she managed that - she wasn't well liked."
She took the twenty and pulled the canvas closed.
Custer tossed me a ball of telephone wire.
"Use it. Stuff changes around here. We get geeks down from the University of Georgia trying to study the 'phenomenon.' They go in and never come out." His eyes lit up with a wry spark. "Sometimes we hear them calling out in the walls. Looking for a way back from the Outside."
"Ever try to find them?"
"You're asking the wrong question," Custer's face split into a happy grin. The cigarette performed a pirouette. "The question you should be asking is what they look like when we do."
Oh boy. I tossed the wire back at him. "No thanks. I could hear that damned whooming even in death. What's making the noise?"
Custer reached over to the tank on his left and knocked on the glass. A dark shadow flickered in the tenebrous water. Something struck the far wall with a thud, and a huge head, as wide as a dinner plate, brushed against the glass. Mottled black and slimy like a toad's spine, it rubbed its blunt nose on the algae. Tiny black eyes stared dull and unseeing past me.
The head split in half revealing an enormous white mouth. The folds on the side of the head trembled, and a low sound rolled through the Honeycomb. Whoom! The creature scraped its broad nose against the glass once more and whirled, impossibly fast. I caught a glimpse of a clawed foot, a flash of a long muscled tail, and then it was gone, back into the churning water.
A Japanese salamander. Big one, as tall as Julie at least.
"Whomper," Custer said and waved me on with a dismissive flick of his hand.
THE TWISTED PATH TOOK US DEEP INTO THE HONEYCOMB, into the maze of twisted trailers. As I passed, I sensed people beyond the windows watching me. Nobody came out to say hello. Nobody wanted to know what my business was. I had a feeling that if I stopped and asked for directions, I'd get no answer. If someone wanted to snipe me from behind one of those misshapen funhouse-mirror windows, there wasn't a hell of a lot I could do about it. Julie felt it, too. She kept quiet and scurried in my footsteps, casting wary looks at the trailers.
Ahead the path ran into a tall tower of debris and split, flowing around it. The tower itself, a contorted monstrosity of trash and metal junk, rose to nearly forty feet. Near the top it tapered to a slender point merely five feet across before widening abruptly into an almost square platform. As I stopped to gape at it, two furry animals the size of a cat but equipped with long chinchilla tails and shrew snouts scuttled up the rubble and vanished in some hidey-hole.
I kept moving, my thoughts returning again and again to the hole in the ground at the Sisters' gathering place. The pit bothered me. Any bottomless hole in the earth would bother me, especially this close to a flare. I was afraid something had come out of that hole and odds were, it wasn't friendly.
The Sisters of the Crow had broken the first rule of witchcraft: don't dabble. Either do it right, or don't do it at all. Before one ever tried to cast a spell, one had to prepare for the consequences.
Had they been worshipping the Goddess, an embodiment of nature, a kind of all-purpose amalgam of benevolent female deities popular with cults, little harm would have come to them. The Goddess, much like the Christian God, was too all encompassing and benign. But they had worshipped the crow, which pointed to something dark and very specific. And the more specific the god, the less wiggle room its worshippers had. It was the difference between telling a child, "Don't do anything bad while I'm gone" and "If you touch this vase, I will ground you for three days."
Until I identified the crow, I had to fly blind. Unfortunately, everyone from Vikings to Apaches had a corvid in their mythology. Crows created or swallowed the world, delivered messages for a handful of gods, served as prophets, played tricks, and if they were Chinese, lived in the sun and had three legs. Nothing at the site had pointed to any particular mythos. Not even Bran - no accent, no meaningful peculiarities in clothes, no nothing.