Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  “Go,” he murmured, and then, in a low, fervent voice, “Please don’t make me stay. Please.”

  Elian shook her head. “I think I’d feel better if there were three of you, though you’ll have to be careful with the money to make it stretch. Do you—do you want me to get some kind of message to your mother?”

  He shrugged. “She won’t care,” he said bitterly. “Not really. Not unless my dad tries to stop the child support money, which she’s saving up so she can get another color TV—for her bedroom.”

  Elian felt the urge to hug him, but his crossed arms, his lowered brow, kept her voice light and casual—or as light as she could manage.

  “Then let’s make some sandwiches, and Deirdre, why don’t you change into some sturdier clothes? You can always stop at a Goodwill Store and get a change of clothes.”

  The kids all looked at her like the idea of changing clothes hadn’t occurred to them. Deirdre vanished into her room, throwing her school stuff onto her bed. She pulled a pair of blue jeans from her drawer and a summer top, and then traded her school loafers for a pair of tennis shoes.

  When she emerged, her mother nodded in approval as she bustled around the kitchen. “I have an idea. If you buy a baseball cap, and maybe a boy’s t-shirt, you could stuff your hair into the cap and look at a distance like three boys. Kessler won’t be asking anyone about three boys.”

  Deirdre jumped up and down. “Mom, that’s a great idea!”

  “Here is your map,” Elian said, handing Deirdre an old piece of paper in faded pencil.

  “What is this?”

  “How you can get near your California world gate,” Elian said lightly. “I’ve kept it all these years as my souvenir from my own adventure. Save it, if you can. I’d like it back.”

  Deirdre wordlessly hurled herself into her mother’s arms. Elian squeezed her, then murmured, “I had my turn. Now it’s yours. Who knows? Maybe we can adventure together some day.” She looked up. “If it works for you the way it worked for me, it’s likely to take you to a kingdom called Mearsies Heili.”

  Arthur rubbed his upper lip with his thumb, but he said nothing.

  “Better go,” Elian whispered as she slathered the last of the peanut butter onto a slice of bread.

  Frederic saw hot tears bouncing down Deirdre’s cheeks. He quickly finished the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he and Elian had been making, folded them into the waiting sandwich wrap, then shoved them into a brown grocery bag. Three apples filled it up.

  Elian walked them to the door, then peered out in all directions. She placed the milk bottle into the holder, and then waved.

  All three kids slipped out, Deirdre looking back twice.

  Nobody spoke until they reached the El station. “I’ll get the tickets,” Frederic offered. “I know how—I have to do it when I go see my dad twice a year. Also, if Kessler comes nosing, he might ask if anyone has seen a blond girl or boy, but he won’t ask about a brown-haired fat boy.”

  Deirdre handed him the money.

  By three, when Kessler was indeed standing near the school gate watching every single child who came through, they were rumbling down the road on the Greyhound bus. They sat in the back, shrunk down so no one could see them from the windows.

  And at five, as a thunderstorm rolled in, Kessler was once again at Frederic’s house, but this time he was going to get inside.

  He had no idea the children were getting farther away with every turn of the wheels, eating their sandwiches and apples and trying to think of word games to play to keep their spirits up.

  Twelve: The Run Begins

  It was full dark when the bus finally reached Glen Ellyn, and they had to get off. Tired and grubby, the kids followed the other passengers.

  “What now?” Deirdre asked. “Shall we buy tickets to the next town?”

  Frederic had tried to buy tickets all the way through, to be sent to get a parent. Deirdre had bought the tickets to Glen Ellyn, which was the farthest they’d let a kid go without supervision.

  The three looked inside the little bus station toward the ticket seller, who looked tough, old, and capable of instantly phoning for the police. “It’s dark,” Deirdre said finally. “I’ll bet you anything they ask where our parents are.”

  Frederic sighed. “At this rate, it’s going to take us ten years to cross the country.”

  Deirdre tried not to snap. “What else can we do?”

  “Nothing,” Frederic said, his head hanging.

  He looked so disconsolate that Deirdre felt bad. “Well, we’ll just have to make it work.” She tried to smile. “At least after all those sandwiches I’m not hungry.”

  Arthur was trying not to breathe in the terrible smell of roasting hot dogs mixed with the thick cigarette and cigar smoke. “Nor am I,” he said gratefully.

  Frederic was hungry. He always was, but he decided he could just wait. It wasn’t like he had to eat.

  So they settled themselves near another family in the waiting room, and this was how they passed the night, in the glaring light, surrounded by noise and people coming and going. Twice they moved to sit near families, but by midnight they had fallen asleep on a bench, oblivious to anything.

  The night clerk had ignored them, not wanting trouble. If they’d fussed, he would have called the police straight away. The morning clerk took one look at the sleeping kids and saw them as potential trouble, so the first thing the kids knew was a rough hand shaking them, and a middle-aged woman saying, “Gwan. Git yourselves to school. This ain’t no flophouse.”

  “Yes ma’am,” Frederic said, being used to bossy older women.

  They struggled wearily to their feet and walked out, as the clerk scowled after them. In the bleak, rainy early light they stared around.

  “Coffee shop,” Frederic said, pointing at neon lights. “Look! Early-bird breakfast, ninety-nine cents, all you can eat, unlimited coffee.”

  “Eccch on the coffee,” Deirdre said, feeling happier. “But breakfast? All I can eat?”

  They walked across the street to discover the place was full of truck and bus drivers. Nobody paid them the least attention—including the harassed waitresses.

  They plumped down at a table a group of men had just vacated, shoved the dirty dishes and ash trays to the edge of the table, and sat wearily, Deirdre drawing with her finger in the wet rings left by the water glasses. Arthur closed his eyes, breathing shallowly against the smells, which were even more intense than those in the bus station. Frederic stared gloomily through the window—then straightened up when a familiar figure walked out of the bus station, looked both ways, then ducked into a phone booth.

  No. It couldn’t be.

  The window was smeary from grease and smoke. Frederic fought against two conflicting urges, to clean the window and to duck down. Was that Kessler, or just some man his size and shape?

  It was Kessler, who’d had a horrible day and night. He’d gone to Frederic’s apartment, wasting a lot of time to remain unseen. Once again, he peered through windows, to discover the back of the house empty, and the front with only the woman in it. But he stayed long enough to see the other tenants: two women and a man arrived within an hour of one another, and after each went inside, corresponding lights turned on in upstairs windows, accounting for all the rooms. None of those people looked familiar. He could not believe the children were hiding with any of them.

  So he went back to Deirdre’s apartment, ready to carry out his threats. When no one answered, he kicked the door down, to discover the place empty—and the wail of approaching police cars, called by neighbors who heard the door splinter.

  He left, to be confronted by a huge man waving a baseball bat. Two punches from Kessler left the man groaning on the landing, the bat flung away.

  Kessler went straight to Elian’s coffee shop—but Elian was not there, either. He had no way of knowing that she’d packed up Ursel and gone to force herself on her wealthy brother for a week’s visit.

  So Kessler
hailed a cab, which took him back to Frederic’s house. The only person in a good mood that night was the cabbie, who got paid eighty-five dollars for a three dollar fare. Kessler was furious, but his mood didn’t hold a candle to the exploding sun of Mrs. Holmes’s temper. Frederic had not come home—hadn’t called—and now this horrible Russian spy was here again, asking for who?

  “Where is Frederic?” Mrs. Holmes screeched so loudly that all the neighbors’ porch lights came on.

  The next door neighbor had her finger whirling the dial in no time flat. “Operator, get me the police! There is a man trying to kidnap my neighbor!”

  Kessler forced himself past the woman, leaving her howling louder than ever until he picked up an ugly vase from an overloaded side table and clopped her behind the ear. Mrs. Holmes dropped with a thud to the carpet. He’d finished his search by the time she began to rouse herself; by then, once again, the sirens were wailing closer and closer. He found evidence of a boy living there, but the clothing was the wrong size for Irtur. Yet Deirdre had come to this place, so there had to be a connection between the two children. Especially since both were missing.

  One again he took off just ahead of the posse, as Mrs. Holmes tottered to her feet and poured out her story of her dear Frederic—kidnapped by Russian spies!

  Kessler found the cabbie circling the block hopefully and returned to the old apartment building (this time he only paid forty-three dollars, as he’d had a lot of ones) just to discover police still there, questioning all the neighbors. He had to leave. He must not draw attention to himself.

  So he let the cab go and retreated to what he thought of as a tavern. He hadn’t eaten all day, and he had to think. Over a meal, he reviewed the facts: Deirdre and Frederic had vanished. The likeliest reason was that they had taken Irtur, which meant that they would accompany the boy to a World Gate. That meant the lakeside. He could go stake that out, or...

  Would they go farther? So far, in this world, he’d discovered that children did not travel alone like on his world. They tended to be in their homes at night. But it was very late, and neither Deirdre nor Frederic were at home. That argued for either another, unknown child in on the secret—or they were traveling.

  And if they were traveling, could it be they were hiding somewhere in the Lake Shore area, waiting for midnight to get World Gate access? If so, he could sit tight because he’d spent two terrible days putting a vicious ward over it, with a tracer. If Irtur tried to do magic, the Norsunder mark on his arm would home Kessler straight on him. And if he taught the other two the spell, his ward and tracer would alert him.

  But what if the children went to another Gate? The nearest one was all the way across the continent. Kessler knew children who were enterprising enough to make that journey, so he did not find it tough to believe. In fact, it made the most sense of any other course.

  So how would they go?

  He remembered Deirdre and Frederic getting on buses...

  Just after dawn, he reached Glen Ellyn. He was pale with fury and exhaustion, but at last he’d gotten the answer he wanted: “Three children? I don’t remember any girl, but there were three juvies loafing about here just a while ago. I kicked them out. We’re not a flophouse for delinquents.”

  Most of that streamed right by Kessler. He charged through the door, then paused as, not ten paces away, a phone in the phone booth began to ring.

  He had figured out telephones, though he preferred to avoid them. He also knew the booths were for people to use to call others, and one had to insert coinage to get them to operate. But here was one ringing, without any person around.

  He cursed under his breath: he suspected who it was. Of course it would be a power play, a not-so-subtle reminder of who might be watching him. Who held the whip handle.

  He stepped into the booth, picked up the phone, and heard the pleasant, smiling voice of the single person he was afraid of in the entire world. In both worlds.

  “Don’t tell me you lost him, Kessler,” Detlev of Norsunder said. “You lost a small boy?”

  o0o

  Across the street, Frederic sat upright, and poked Arthur, who’d dropped onto the slippery naugahyde bench next to him. “Is that Kessler?”

  The three kids leaned toward the window, peering at the phone booth, where they saw a dark-haired man talking. He looked angry; as they watched he hung the phone up viciously, then slammed out of the booth.

  They got a glimpse of his face as he stalked away.

  It was Kessler.

  “Back way,” Frederic said.

  The kids jumped up and threaded through the busy place, completely ignored by the adults. Deirdre cast a fearful look back—Kessler was coming their way!

  They ducked into a kitchen.

  “Get out of here!” a cook snarled.

  “Sorry—looking for the bathroom,” Frederic said.

  “That way—hey! That way!” the cook yelled, but the kids plunged on past, toward another open door.

  This one was a walk in refrigerator—and it had a second door, a big one, at the back. Beyond that open door was another open door, up a ramp: a truck! As one, they dashed past a couple of men maneuvering a dolly full of frozen goods, clambered into the truck, and ducked inside behind a stack of boxes.

  Frigid air wreathed around them. After the steamy restaurant it felt good. Abruptly the doors slammed—and then they heard voices.

  One voice was low. Deirdre’s neck prickled.

  The voices closest to the refrigerator door was clearest. “No I ain’t seen no kids, nor purple elephants, neither. Gwan, get outa my way, I have a schedule to keep.”

  The kids stood in the dark refrigerator what seemed a horrible long time, then the engine started, and the truck began to vibrate. Then it jerked, and the kids fell into a pile on cold tubs of ice cream and other frozen products.

  They got up again, wincing and shivering, as the cold began to chill their clothes and skin. Hands got tucked into armpits and toes curled in shoes until the truck jerked to a halt again. They pressed back among the boxes as the door chain rattled, then light and air swirled in.

  Deirdre hunched, hoping Kessler was not about to pounce on them. Arthur leaned his head against a cold box; it felt good on his never-ending headache. Frederic risked one peek, to see a man in a white uniform roll a dolly up to get a stack of stuff stored nearest the door.

  Frederic realized the stacks of cardboard tubs and boxes all had papers on them. He peered at the nearest. The rows nearest the doors had unfamiliar names, but the ones at the back—by far the most—all listed the airport!

  “I think we’re going to be okay,” he ventured cautiously, “if we don’t freeze on the way.”

  “And if Kessler isn’t following this truck,” Deirdre said.

  Instant gloom.

  They couldn’t know that Kessler had emerged from the restaurant when the driver was returning the dolly to the inside of the truck, so he assumed the man had been in the back of the truck all the time, and had just asked which way three kids had gone. When he got his surly non-answer, he’d taken off to search himself, certain he could catch up with three kids.

  After he had scoured the area, he returned, wondering if some vehicle had the children. Like that truck. But of course he had no idea where it was going.

  All right, he would have to get to the other Gate first.

  Thirteen: The Run Continues

  The kids tried walking in circles, jumping up and down, and exercising wildly to fend off the freeze. Still, their noses, toes, and fingers were numb when they finally reached the airport.

  Then they had to wait for the man to wheel down the first shipment before they scrambled clumsily out of the truck, hearing that voice about “a schedule to keep” as they scurried away, Deirdre’s anxious face constantly peering backward.

  But no one paid them any attention, other than to chase them away from the loading and storage areas. Frederic was the fastest with excuses, after long habit: “Looking f
or Lost and Found!” he yelled, and when people gave incomprehensible directions, the kids said “Thank you!” and ran off.

  Finally they reached the concourse, which had all the ticket offices of the main airlines. They figured out the board that listed flights, and found two going to Los Angeles, one leaving in half an hour, and another in four hours.

  “Half an hour! Cripes!” Frederic yelped. “We gotta scramola!”

  “No,” Deirdre said. “I mean, we should get the tickets, but not that one. Look! See? It goes down to Texas, and then to New Mexico, and then to Los Angeles. My dad used to complain about sitting on airport runways forever when flights go up and down, and they take a long time. That other one is a non-stop.”

  Frederic whistled. “Right.”

  Arthur glanced wearily at the board. He’d learned about airplanes when watching the picture box, but nothing about accessing them made any sense.

  Then they were stymied again: no one would sell tickets to kids.

  So whom to ask?

  They wasted time debating what type of person to ask. Deirdre voted for motherly women, and Frederic for young guys with long hair. Arthur listened with his eyes closed, then finally said, “Why do you not each ask on your own, and if someone assents, come get the rest of us?”

  “Okay.”

  Deirdre marched off, glad she had the money. She was sure that long-haired guys, who had to be like the teenagers near the bus stop who were so mean, would just try to rob them. But every single one of the motherly-looking ladies she asked said first thing, “Where are your parents?” Not a one of them listened to her story about her mother being in the rest room and they were in a hurry so Mom sent Deirdre to buy the tickets.

  Frederic soon returned, red in the face. “Got cussed out twice and laughed at once.”

  Deirdre admitted her own failure, adding, “They didn’t even listen. Why not? If a kid came up to me, I’d listen!”

  Arthur sighed, wishing he dared try magic—then he thought, why not an illusion? It was not real magic, that is, not transformational magic. Wards seldom included illusion because it was used so often for plays and in shops and the like. He couldn’t perform it, but he could teach something that easy to Deirdre and Frederic.

 
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