Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith

  “Ma, this is Arthur,” Frederic said.

  Arthur stayed upright with an effort, then gave a bow which looked both quaint and formal.

  Mrs. Holmes liked quaint and formal, especially these days, when kids all had no manners, were a lot of shaggy-haired monsters, all wanting to look like that yowling band from England, what was it, The Cockroaches? Ah, The Insects. Sounded like ’em, too.

  “I’m so delighted that Freddie has such a polite little friend, Arthur,” she trilled. “And your last name, little man?” She added a coy laugh, eyeing his clothes. Odd, he looked if anything like one of those Amish types down Pennsylvania way. Well, they made good chairs.

  “Den Evend,” Arthur murmured. “Arthur Vithyavadnais den Evend.”

  “Danish? My people are D—”

  “No, Ma,” Frederic said desperately, wanting to get Arthur into a chair before he fell over. “We gotta get to work—”

  “You must be Danish. I’d know a Danish accent anywhere, being a pure-blooded Danish flower myself.” And another coy titter.

  Frederic pulled Arthur up the short flight of stairs to his rooms at the back, one time storage rooms, in the days before refrigerators.

  He shut his door, knowing his mother rarely mounted the stairs to invade his territory, and shoved Arthur into his reading chair, which was an enormous overstuffed Victorian monster that smelled of ancient Macassar oil from some unknown great-grandfather. It was the only chair Frederic had ever sat in that made him feel small, and it was as comfy as a bed—in fact he slept there during freezes in winter, as the house temperature was kept at 55 degrees (except in his mother’s rooms).

  Arthur sank into it like a collapsing balloon.

  Frederic moved to the window and opened it, peering out. “No sign of Deirdre,” he said. “Then so far, at least, no disasters. Let me make sure.” He whistled, soft and low, in case Deirdre had found the right house—he’d told her the street and number.

  He kept his whistle soft, but sure enough, the window of the house across the way flew up and a wrinkled, irritable face peered out, jowls jiggling and mean eyes darting about. “Was that you whistling, Frederic Holmes?” the woman screeched. “Disturbing the entire neighborhood?”

  “No,” Frederic said, relieved Deirdre wasn’t there. Then everything must have gone all right. “It was my chimney!”

  The woman shook her finger. “I’ll tell your mother, boy. No, I’ll report you to the police, you juvenile delinquent!”

  “Go ahead,” Frederic said, knowing that she called at least ten times a week, if not more—every time she heard any children playing within earshot of her house. “Or go call your daughter and tell her I was whistling at birds! It was a secret signal commanding them to come over and bomb your—”

  The window slammed down.

  Frederic grinned at the surprised look on Arthur’s face. “What, you don’t have nosy neighbors where you live?”

  Arthur shrugged. “I think there are all kinds of people in the cities. But will you not have difficulties with this woman?”

  “Naw. The police ignore her now, her and her awful daughter, who is even worse. At least she moved out. Anyway, she won’t tell my mom, either, ever since they had a fight.”

  Arthur’s eyes widened. “These two women fought?”

  “Well, not like a duel,” Frederic said, trying to picture his mother waving a sword or gun, and failing. “But back a long time ago, the neighbor spread it all over their ladies bridge club that my mother got her figure from some kind of extra-strong corset.”

  Arthur’s brow wrinkled as he struggled to define all these concepts. “Corsets, we have, too,” he murmured. “But I am to comprehend that the neighbor lied?”

  “Oh, no, she told the truth. I don’t know who’s right or wrong in that one,” Frederic added, scratching his head. Arthur didn’t look quite so beat, so he added, “My brother Norm told me once that Mom used to lecture everyone else who had problems that they simply had to use willpower. Said her slim figure was because she had such good willpower. So when the neighbor spotted the ol’ corset, the beans were spilled.”

  “Beans? Spilled?”

  “Secret was out. That’s what made my Ma mad! She kept wearing it anyway, until she cracked it, and that was that, she quit the bridge group.”

  Arthur sank back, smiling wearily. “I think... I think you need to explain bridge,” he murmured.

  “After I get you some food.” Even in the dim light—for Frederic was only allowed a forty watt bulb in each room—Arthur looked weak and pale.

  “There will be no problem?”

  Frederic grinned. “Not with food. We get it delivered, and my Pa pays for it. With food, I can have anything I want, as much as I want, just as long as I don’t use a lot of gas or electricity, One pot and it’s hot is my motto, and my Ma leaves me alone. Now, I’m gonna fix you a bath, and while you soak, I’ll see to a nice big dinner.” He picked up from one of his rickety bookshelves a well-worn Insta-Meal cook book. “I may know nothing about sports, but I know lots about one-pot tasty dishes.”


  Frederic cooked, and Deirdre and her mother kept themselves busy.

  The clock seemed frozen in place, Deirdre kept looking at it so much, but finally the phone rang.

  Deirdre sat up, shoulders hunched.

  Elian Weiss lifted a finger, then moved to the phone on the kitchen divider. “Hello? Yes, this is the Weiss residence. Just a moment, please,” she said in her calm, cheery waitress-voice. “It’s for you, dear.” She held out the phone, smiling to give Deirdre courage.

  Deirdre knew at once who it was. She took the phone, leaning against her mother. “Hullo, this is Deirdre.”

  “Deirdre Weiss.” That soft voice, the flat accent, sent arrows of terror through Deirdre.

  She hurried into speech. “You still want me to babysit tomorrow?”

  He cut in. “My charge is missing.”

  Deirdre said, faintly, “What?”

  “You did not see anything? Hear anything?”

  Deirdre hated lying at any time. “I heard the television,” she said, which was true. “It’s very loud. Do you have two televisions?”

  Silence. She started counting, determined not to speak.

  He said finally, “You did not open the door?”

  “How could I do that?”

  “You knew it was locked,” the man observed.

  “Yes. I tried it the day I heard the groaning. Remember?” That was true, too. She forced herself to breathe slowly, because she could hear her voice getting quivery.

  “Good-bye, Deirdre Weiss,” he said, and hung up.

  Deirdre dropped the phone on the hook as if it was poison. “He said ‘good-bye’ in such a weird voice, like—like, I don’t know what.”

  “Probably means something else in his language,” Elian Weiss said.

  Deirdre sagged down onto the couch. “Well, at least that’s over. I hope he goes back home and we never have to see him again.”

  Elian smiled and said, “Why don’t you have a good tub soak, and fall into bed?”

  Deirdre started toward the bathroom, then turned around. “You don’t think it’s over.”

  Her mother smiled again. “I hope it is,” she said soothingly, but inside she was afraid.

  Nine: School Is Unsafe

  It took both Elian and Deirdre a few moments to figure out what had woken them up. When the rapping came on the front door, they turned on bedside lamps and whirled out of bed, reaching for housecoats.

  But when Elian padded to the front room, turning on lights as she went, Deirdre stayed in the doorway to the room she shared with Ursel, her heart pounding.

  Her mother cracked the front door open, then stumble as it was pushed from the outside. “Mr. Blick?” she said.

  “I must search,” the man responded, his accent heavier than ever, as he looked around the living room.

  “For what?” Elian said.

  “My cha
rge, Irtur den Evend.” Then something in another tongue, a spasm of anger tightened his face, and he said, “The—the wards. Deflected.”

  “Why did you not come earlier? We were asleep, and have work tomorrow,” she said, and that sounded reasonable. “Can you return in the morning?”

  “I will search. Fast,” he said, and she felt menace though he had uttered no threat, nor had he made any threatening move. But the shadows seemed darker beyond the pool of yellow light, and colder, and fraught with danger.

  “Make it quick, please,” she said. “We do have to sleep.”

  He came inside, gave Deirdre a narrow glance, and then moved swiftly from room to room.

  The apartment was small, with little furniture. Still, his search was thorough—under the couch and the beds, in the closets, including the linen closet. He even shook the kitchen trash can, and Elian Weiss was glad she’d taken the extra precaution of walking that rope and nasty gag out to the farthest of the trash bins used by the apartment complex.

  He was gone as silently as he’d searched, and though Elian checked the lock three times, danger seemed to linger in the apartment.

  “Come in with me,” Elian said, carefully picking Ursel up.

  The baby did not stir as they settled her in the middle of Elian’s bed. Deirdre curled up on her other side, one hand against her sister’s small back, and Elian put the light out and lay listening to her daughters’ quiet breathing, and wondering if that man was watching the windows from afar.


  The next day was Friday.

  Deirdre left her apartment being careful to walk like usual, carry her books like usual, and not look right or left. Consequently she felt as if inimical blue eyes spied on her from every corner, rooftop, darkened window, doorway. It was a relief, for once, to climb onto the crowded bus, where she stood in the middle of the crowd.

  And it was a relief to get to school. She didn’t even mind when a stampede of shrieking and giggling girls (most of them squealing “My hair!”) knocked her into a wall as they undulated by, trying to run in their tight, short skirts and tiny-heeled t-strap shoes, as a couple of the jocks chased them with a Coke bottle they’d shaken up so it was foaming all over.

  Several other kids got shoved or tripped, leaving the hallway in a scramble of mad kids. Deirdre saw Frederic emerge, and under cover of all the noise dared to talk to him: “Okay?”

  “Asleep,” Frederic said, after a hasty look around.

  Sure enough, there was Tom Maccles and his gang, obviously looking for someone to pick on with their foaming Coke bottles—strictly forbidden at school.

  The bell rang, and everyone dispersed, Deirdre with a sigh of relief that had nothing to do with Kessler, and everything to do with being spared sitting through a day with sticky clothes and books.

  At recess they met at the library. Frederic tipped his head toward the science stacks the moment he spotted Deirdre. For once the library didn’t have any detention students, which meant it was nearly empty.

  Nearly, but not completely. Deirdre had just reached the science books, with their musty, untouched smell, and began, “He came last night—” when shuffling feet, snickers, and the pop of gum alerted her.

  Both kids turned away, Frederic wildly studying old, shabby books on the categories of plants, and Deirdre running her finger along the Dewey Decimal numbers on the backs of the books opposite, as if her life depended upon finding something on the subject of Amphibians of the World.

  Four whispering girls they didn’t know appeared, passing by with only a snigger and a crack of gum; it was clear they were after better prey.

  Deirdre heard muffled noises on the other side of the stack, stooped and peered between the crenellations of the book tops and the shelf above, and saw a couple of kids in the next row in the middle of kissy-face. A sudden increase of giggles made it clear who the girls were spying on.

  Deirdre slid the other way, down to the history stacks, and Frederic, after a furtive look around, slunk after.

  “That man came and searched our apartment,” Deirdre whispered, while pretending to study the choices on the history of the Roman Empire.

  Frederic took down a book on Julius Caesar. “Arthur went nuts—”

  A thump against the bookshelf on the other side, and a younger boy staggered past and fell on the floor.

  From around the corner of the shelves came the sounds of mean sniggers and rapidly retreating feet.

  Frederic and Deirdre both stooped and helped pick up the kid’s scattered books and papers, handed them to him, which he took with a mumble that could have been thanks. Deirdre sighed, then muttered, “That horrible man—”

  But Frederic lifted his hand in warning, and waggled his head toward the main aisle between the shelves. He, who hid out in the library as often as possible, knew what was coming next.

  And sure enough, Mrs. Draganza’s proper lady librarian shoes squished rapidly toward them on the linoleum floor, and then she appeared, scowling over the tops of her rhinestone-edged glasses with the perky uptilted ends. The pink ribbon looping from her glasses around the back of her neck trembled as she whispered, “There is no talking in the library!”

  “Sorry, Mrs. Draganza,” Frederic said instantly.

  “Sorry,” Deirdre echoed.

  The librarian scowled at them longer, and Deirdre fought impatience. Two shelves away there were two kids playing tonsil hockey, four girls were prowling around watching and giggling, three boys were prowling around looking for freshman to shove around—and they get yelled at?

  But Mrs. Draganza did not see any gum in their mouths, or transistor radios in their hands, and so she turned around and squish, squish, squish, returned to the main desk.

  “Woolworth’s,” Deirdre whispered, and Frederic nodded.

  They plodded through the rest of the afternoon. Both of them felt questions, the need to talk, piling up inside their heads. Frederic thought his brain would explode if he had to wait any longer. Deirdre kept asking herself the same questions over and over, and trying to stop, but her mind would worry its way right back again.

  They reached the store separately—to discover a gaggle of ladies standing around the baby section, jabbering about somebody’s expectant baby and a baby shower.

  As soon as Deirdre spotted Frederic, who stopped stock still as though he’d run into an invisible glass wall, she motioned him away, to the row of sewing machines in another corner.

  Nobody was around.

  “I got—”


  They stopped. Deirdre said, “You first.”

  Frederic thumped his books onto the ground by his feet and shoved his hands through his short hair. “It was weird! At first, everything was fine. Got food into him—he ate as much as I do—and he got a bath, and since there weren’t any clothes, I gave him some of my summer stuff, and he went to sleep while I took his stuff out back to the washing machine. But when I snuck back in with his dry clothes, it was oh, about eleven or so, he was thrashing around on the bed like an invisible octopus was wrestling him, and talking in a weird language.”

  “Uh oh,” Deirdre said.

  “He tried to get up to leave once or twice, then he grabbed his arm, like this—” Frederic clutched his upper arm. “Like I’d stabbed him there! He started to yell something, and I was so scared my Ma would hear, I kinda shoved him under the bed and sat on it. He did yell, but it was muffled. And he couldn’t get out. When I sit on someone they stay sat on.” He gave a pained smile.

  “Good thinking,” Deirdre said, and meant it. “I wonder if his wound popped open.”

  “What wound?”

  “Didn’t he tell you? Or didn’t I tell you? I’m having trouble remembering now, everything is so crazy. But he said that right before they came to Earth that icky Mr. Ick cut him on the arm with a knife, and then put a bandage or something, on it, but it healed up quick.”

  Frederic grimaced. “What a rat fink!”

“But Arthur was all right this morning?”

  “He came out of it around midnight. I know that because Ma always shuts off her TV at midnight. He plopped into sleep, and was still there when I looked in this morning. I left him some bread, cheese, and a stack of Mad Magazines and came to school.”

  Deirdre nodded, and in a few quick sentences described the search. Frederic shook his head, then said, “Well, I hope that’s that. I gotta admit I don’t want to meet this guy. Seems to me we should both go to my place, since you aren’t babysitting, and he might be watching your house, and see if we can find out how to get Arthur to his Gate dealio.” Frederic frowned, then added, “Though I might have to sneak you through the back window, if Ma’s TV door is open so she can spy on the tenants coming and going. How are you at climbing up old trellises?”

  “I used to love climbing trees at our house, before we had to sell it. Didn’t your mom notice Arthur not leaving, since she spies?”

  “Oh, I just waited until she went into the kitchen while a commercial was on, opened the front door and yelled ‘G’bye Arthur!’ and slammed the door again. She never comes in my rooms,” he added. “But invite a girl over? She’d squawk even louder than when the upstairs tenant tried to plug in some Christmas tree lights a couple years ago.”

  Deirdre looked puzzled as Frederic followed her out, and to the bus stop. “What’s wrong with Christmas tree lights? I mean, unless she doesn’t like celebrating it.”

  “She doesn’t like the fact that utilities are included in the rent, and those lights take electricity,” Frederic said. “She says they’re dangers. Will catch the tree on fire and burn down the house. It’s written into the lease, which tenants never notice until too late.”

  The bus drew up then, and they clambered on, going over plans for sneaking Deirdre into the house.

  Neither of them had thought to look around them since leaving school, so they did not see the man who had waited patiently outside the school gates through which all the kids left, and who spotted and followed them. They never thought to look around while they held their hasty conversation at Woolworth’s so they never saw Kessler Sonscarna waiting with the sinister patience of the hunter outside the five and dime, intending to follow them straight to his target.

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