Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  “Yes, and I’m calling the police right now!”

  “Good idea,” Mrs. Holmes declared, and turned on Kessler. “Prowling? Around my house? Who do you think you are, demanding princes and kings? Are you some kind of lunatic escaped from the asylum, or what? Well, the police will find out, you can just count on that!”

  Kessler backed up a step, then another. He could not risk the local authorities finding out who he was, where he came from—anything.

  Mrs. Holmes continued to screech about decent, law-abiding people, Peeping Toms, and crazy men, working herself into a fine temper when she realized she’d just missed the last five minutes of her show and it was ten thirty.

  The man was gone. Her neighbor reappeared on her porch and called, “The police said they’d sent a cruiser right away. Did he take anything?”

  “No, he just asked about princes. He’s got a strange sort of accent.”

  “He must be some kind of spy.” The neighbor gasped. “A Commie spy! Well that certainly explains all that prowling around! What is the world coming to, spies right out in daylight, frightening decent citizens?”

  “That’s typical of those Commonists. We shouldn’t call the police, but the CIA.” Mrs. Holmes saw porch lights going on across the street, and people appearing. She raised her voice, rather more pleased than not at the idea of a spy nosing around her place, and what had her worthless, rotten ex-husband been up to, anyway? Oh, she was going to call her lawyer first thing Monday, and get her money’s worth out of his mental cruelty!

  “The CIA isn’t listed in the phone book,” her neighbor called back, breaking into these pleasant thoughts. “I saw a spy near my daughter’s place just last summer, and I tried to call.”

  “What is that? Spies?” asked the woman from across the street.

  People began gathering on the sidewalk, firing questions back and forth. Frederic eased up next to his mother. “What’s wrong?”

  “There was some Commie spy lurking around. Probably even had a gun!”

  “Gun!” the word got picked up and passed along the street, along with a description of Kessler that, by the time it reached the end of the block, kept only his black hair—he gained steadily in height and breadth until he was the size of Mr. Atlas, and carrying a Lüger, a submachine gun, and a belt full of grenades. And he had a squad of G-men waiting around the corner.

  Mrs. Holmes turned back to the street. Instead of coming up to her to ask about the spy, the neighbors had all crowded around Mrs. Nosy Parker from next door! Well if that wasn’t the limit! Yes, there she was, talking loudly as if the menace had been on her porch. In disgust she called, “Well, tell the police to call the CIA, then.” She slammed the door, and turned to Frederic. “That boy is gone home, right?”

  Frederic said, “I’m sure he’s been asleep for ages. He has an early bedtime.”

  Mrs. Holmes nodded. “Just as you’d expect of such a nice, polite, American boy,” she said virtuously. She glared at the door as she threw the deadbolt. “I think we’ll get some nice thick potted plants for the porch. Maybe cactus.”

  Frederic said, “Good idea, Mom. Well, good night.”

  He retreated to his room and checked his clock. Quarter to eleven. He looked doubtfully at Arthur, then dragged his record player, which sat on an end table, to a position in front of his door. It was an old, crummy one—there was no chance he’d ever get a stereo record player—but one thing that lousy old Victrola did was play good and loud.

  He shut his windows so the sound would stay in the house, and then put on his Rolling Stones album. If that man was Kessler, he was bound to be angry, and that probably meant an extra bad eleventh hour.

  So he got pillows ready, made sure the record would play over and over, and then sat to wait.

  He was right.

  Eleven: The Gates

  As soon as Frederic saw Deirdre at school he didn’t even watch for nosy kids, he just muttered, “We gotta find another place for Arthur. My ma is extra mad because the neighbor ‘stole’ her Russian spy.”

  “What?” Deirdre gasped.

  Frederic sighed. “Never mind it making sense. I think that Kessler was the one who came knocking. I didn’t see but I heard his voice. Husky. Low. Accent. Asked for Prince Yihr-tah, or Yuh-too, or something-something-something.”

  “That had to be Kessler,” Deirdre whispered, looking very frightened. “He didn’t see Arthur, did he?”

  Frederic shook his head. “Ma got too mad. Not just at him, but mostly at the lady next door. That means she’s extra touchy, and it’s getting harder to keep Arthur quiet at night.”

  Deirdre clutched her books against her. “The only thing I can think of is to ask Mom, soon as I get home.”

  “And I’ll sneak him out and bring him to your place.”

  Since Kessler had somehow found out about Frederic’s house, Deirdre just nodded. The bell rang then, and they scurried to their homeroom classes.

  They both thought themselves relatively safe at school—so they were shocked when the principal appeared in the hallway outside of Deirdre’s class just before lunch. Frederic’s math class was just across the hall. He had a second or two’s warning when the whispering, rustling kids suddenly went silent, as they always did whenever the principal was sighted.

  There were small sighs of relief when he turned to Deirdre’s classroom and went inside. Nobody paid much attention except for Frederic, who held his breath. Coincidence? There’d been too many of those lately.

  And sure enough, a minute or so later Deirdre emerged with the principal, her face as pale as her blouse, as she followed the principal toward the administration building.

  Deirdre was too terrified to register the astonishment in the principal, who had sustained a visit from a foreign-sounding man who said he was a truant officer, and claimed that the child he was seeking was being harbored by Deirdre Weiss.

  “Deirdre Weiss?” the principal had asked, expecting a name from the usual list of troublemakers.

  “That is the one,” was the reply.

  “Should we call her mother?”

  Kessler made a dismissive gesture. “No. She’s as much involved as the girl.”

  The principal didn’t like the look of this man, but a constituted authority was a constituted authority, and of course he did not approve of truancy. That was the sure road to juvenile delinquency. So he frowned terribly as he led Deirdre into his office, where Kessler was waiting. Curious to see if there was a mistake, he was amazed when Deirdre, so good a student, looked sick at the sight of the man in the other chair. She knew him, all right.

  Deirdre Weiss, a juvenile delinquent?

  Kessler said, “I will speak to this child myself.”

  The principal nodded, indicating for him to go ahead. Kessler was annoyed that the man did not leave. He’d spent most of the night learning what he could about the police, after his experiences the day before. It was clear that people in this world, or at least this part of this world, were afraid of these authority figures whose precise function he couldn’t quite discern.

  It didn’t matter. He learned what he could, found the section of ‘the police’ that mostly had to do with children, and it remained only to concoct a suitable cover that would not call attention to his real purpose, and use that cover to get into the school. He’d already discovered that there were officious women who watched the big gate at the front of the school through which all the children came in the morning and left at three. They stopped any adult who tried to pass, demanding identification papers of a sort Kessler had never heard of: driver’s license (he subsequently discovered that meant someone who could operate one of those steel carts that smelled so bad, but required no horses) or evidence of business that had to do with the school. On his own world they would not have lived two heartbeats after threatening him, but he’d been ordered not to call attention to himself here. A trail of dead bodies might confound these local idiots, but anyone from his side of the Great Gate wou
ld instantly know his hand lay behind the deaths.

  So he had to discover the rules here, at least enough to function.

  The truant office papers were genuine because he took them from a man who had come early to the police station where he’d done his listening. By the time that man woke up from where he’d been dragged behind the trash bins, Kessler planned to be back through the Gates for good, Irtur in his custody.

  “Where is Irtur,” he said now, to Deirdre.

  She turned to the principal, on the verge of pouring out the story. But she realized two things. One, the principal was not likely to believe anything about magical gates without proof. She had no idea where the Gate was. More important, if she told the story, then Kessler would know she’d lied.

  So she shook her head. “I don’t know.”

  Kessler’s eyes narrowed. She’d thought him scary before, but she had never seen him irritated.

  He turned his head slightly, murmured a word, gestured slightly, and Deirdre saw a faint glow about his fingers. The principal, who had been watching Deirdre, was suddenly taken by a coughing fit.

  He staggered into the little restroom that opened off his office, and while he struggled with the coughing fit, Kessler leaned forward and said to Deirdre, “I commend all three of you. I admire enterprise. But not at my expense. If you do not tell me willingly where he is, then I shall have to use force.”

  “I’ll scream for help.”

  “Not here,” Kessler replied, without sounding angry or much of anything else. “And any of you will do, even that baby, though I dislike such methods. But they do have the advantage of being quick. And everyone recovers from broken bones.”

  It was the lack of anger that chilled Deirdre the most. Her mouth went dry and her heart pounded. Even if she’d wanted to talk she couldn’t have gotten a word out. She seemed unable to even think, staring up at those emotionless blue eyes as Kessler waited.

  The principal came back in, still whooping for breath. Duty required him to be there for any interview, and he was a scrupulous man. So he stood there, mopping his eyes, and said, “Is everything resolved?”

  “It will be,” Kessler replied. And because he was pretending to be a truant officer, and knew he could not draw attention to himself, he said, “As soon as the school grants liberty to the scholars for the day.”

  Grants liberty. Scholars. The principal frowned, mistrusting the situation but not sure where to begin investigating.

  “Then I’ll go back to class,” Deirdre said, backing to the door.

  The principal waved her off. Kessler rose, said, “Thank you,” and he, too, left.

  The principal sank down into his chair, still gasping for breath, and reached for his phone. Then he realized he had forgotten to write down the truant officer’s name, and what was it, anyway? And the name of the truant child? Why did his head hurt so much? He couldn’t think straight.

  He was about to call his secretary in when she knocked on the door, and reminded him of his waiting appointments. Now he just wanted some aspirin; whatever it was he’d been worrying about could be dealt with later.

  He rose to greet the first of the waiting parents, having no idea he’d just experienced magic, not once, but twice: first that bubble in his stomach that had almost made him lose his breakfast, and second the Spell of Forgetting, encompassing both Kessler’s and Deirdre’s names, a spell that always left an intense headache in place of memory. By the time the spell wore off, Kessler would be long gone.

  o0o

  Deirdre sped back to her class, after many looks over her shoulder. Kessler was nowhere in sight.

  She slipped into her seat, ignoring all the looks and whispers from the other students whenever the teacher turned to write on the board. She did not hear the rest of the lesson, or even the homework assignment. When the bell rang, she didn’t hear any of the kids’ questions.

  She just launched through the crowd into the hallway, and as soon as Frederic came out of his room, she started away.

  He followed, of course, frightened by the look on her face.

  Neither spoke until they exited the hall, and as students flowed around them, hustling off to lunch, she said, “We have to get out of here.”

  “What?”

  In a few short, shaky-voiced sentences she told Frederic what had happened. He listened, dismayed. “So what do we do?”

  “I think we need to get out right now, and go get Arthur. Kessler is going to be waiting at the gate at three, he was real clear about that.”

  “But we don’t have lunch passes.”

  “I know. I just thought of that. Tom Maccles and the rest of those clods are always bragging how they sneak away at lunch to smoke, well, let’s see if they do it today—we’ll get out with them. We’ve just got to try.”

  Frederic nodded, feeling sick inside.

  They raced down to the side gate, which was narrower than the school’s main gate. There, as usual, was one of the boys’ P.E. teachers, surly at being stuck with lunch pass duty. A crowd of students stood around as he roared for them to get into line. Pushing and shoving ensued as Deirdre and Frederic hung back uncertainly—

  And then some kid yelled, “I’ll kill you!”

  The sounds of thumps, yells, and breaking glass echoed from the other side of the P.E. building. The teacher bellowed, “Wait here!” and loped around the corner.

  Tom and three of his buddies, plus a couple of gum-smacking girls, all emerged from the milling crowd, and ran through the gate, giggling.

  Deirdre began running, head down, books held tightly, toward the gate. She bulldozed through the kids, Frederic pounding after.

  “Hey! Who was that? Wait!” came the yell of the P.E. teacher from behind.

  Deirdre and Frederic did not stop to see if he was yelling at them. They ducked behind the parked cars belonging to the teachers and zigzagged alongside the vehicles, row by row, until they reached the street.

  For once a bus trundled up just then, and they waved it down, clambering on before it had even stopped.

  The driver roared back into the traffic as Deirdre fished in her pencil holder for two bus tokens.

  It was two scared, wary kids who got off the bus stop near Frederic’s. They watched in all directions this time, but saw no sign of Kessler. Neither of them spoke when they reached his street, and Frederic led the way around to the back.

  “I’m used to the climb,” Deirdre whispered. “You keep watch, and I’ll get him.”

  Deirdre scrambled up, paying no attention to her school clothes, and tapped lightly on the window glass. Arthur popped up a little bit later and snuck a wary peek. Deirdre gave him a super-quick report. He climbed out after her.

  The three of them made their way back to the bus stop, watching in all directions like the worst sort of spies. Deirdre and Frederic were relieved it was Monday and not Friday, or they would not have had enough bus tokens for three.

  They moved all the way to the back, sliding down in the seats so they were not visible in the bus windows, and Deirdre told Arthur what had happened—a story she repeated half an hour later, to her surprised and unhappy mother, as they boys sat at the kitchen table eating coffee cake left over from morning.

  Elian blanched when she got to the threat about the baby.

  “What do we do, Mom?” Deirdre asked.

  Elian looked up. “Kessler cannot threaten you with breaking our bones if you are not here. We—” She stopped, staring at Ursel. Desperately as she wanted to get away, there was no easy way to run with a baby. And she hadn’t enough money for four. Besides, if there were two together—and Arthur knew magic...

  She fought an internal war: the fear of a mother and an adult’s practicality against her childhood craving (and experience) of adventure.

  “You are going to go to California,” she said. “As it happens, I know where that Gate is. That’s the weird thing. CJ herself told me, and I wrote it in my little book.” She settled Ursel into her high chair
and left.

  Deirdre poured out some Cheerios for her sister as Frederic said to her, “Book?”

  “She wrote about her adventures in Arthur’s world. It’s all in this little book she’s always kept secret.”

  Deirdre got the milk bottle out of the fridge and poured the rest into three glasses. She was about to take the glass bottle out to the wire holder sitting outside the apartment for the milk man to pick up, but her mother’s voice stopped her. “Deirdre, leave that, I’ll take care of it later.”

  “You think Kessler is out there?”

  “Probably not. I think he’s at your school, waiting for dismissal time and watching the gate.” Elian glanced at the kitchen clock. “But just in case. Now. You have a little less than two hours until school is dismissed. And then he’ll have to wait for all those kids to come through. This is what you do. You take this money.” She laid Deirdre’s earnings into her daughter’s hand.

  Deirdre stared not at the money but at her mother’s trembling fingers.

  “And this—my weekend’s tips. This is what you use for little stuff. When kids have big bills, people ask questions, unless it’s for things like tickets. You’re going to take the El into Chicago, and go to the Greyhound Station. Arthur, can you do magic to make yourself look older?”

  Arthur said, “They have wards and tracers all over me.”

  “Then you ask some nice lady to buy your tickets. Say your mom is in the rest room, and you have to hurry. If you can’t find anyone, then buy tickets two or three stops along. No one will question that.”

  Deirdre nodded, excited and apprehensive. She snuck a look at the boys. Arthur looked painfully hopeful—and so did Frederic.

  “You take the Greyhound all the way to California.”

  “But if they want grownups?” Deirdre asked.

  “You walk behind somebody, and try to look like you belong to them. As long as you don’t draw attention to yourself, most people don’t notice kids.”

  They all nodded.

  “You stay together—don’t ever go off alone, for any reason. Frederic, do you want to go, or stay?”

 
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