Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  They had not expected to see him—and he, knowing nothing about buses, had not expected them to suddenly climb onto one.

  As the bus drew away, Kessler ran a few steps after until a honking horn forced him, cursing, onto the sidewalk.

  Ten: The Chapter of Spies

  “Wait here for the count of fifty,” Frederic said to Deirdre when they reached his block. “And when you do come, make sure it’s on this side of my house, not the other side. That neighbor is so nosy I’m surprised the CIA hasn’t hired her. I’m sure she knows what color socks Khrushchev is wearing today.”

  “Isn’t it Brezhnev in charge of the Soviet Union now?”

  Frederic shrugged his shoulders. “Ask my next door neighbor. She probably knew before the Russians did when those guys did their power switcheroo.” As Deirdre snickered, he went on, “Anyway, if she sees a girl near my house, she’ll burn out the phone wires for the entire city of Chicago within seconds. My mom,” he added in an embarrassed mumble, “would be even worse.”

  “Okay,” Deirdre said.

  He sauntered down the sidewalk and let himself into his house. His mother was at her usual place in front of the TV, syrupy music for one of her soap operas playing loud. Good. That meant she hadn’t discovered Arthur.

  Frederic found Arthur still in his tiny bedroom, lying on the bed in his own summer clothes, which were huge on the other boy. The breakfast Frederic had fixed and set inside the door had been eaten, and the dishes were neatly stacked on the old wooden floor.

  Arthur smiled, looking a little less dead than the day before, Frederic was glad to see as he moved to old window and wrestled it open a few inches.

  Deirdre was just scrambling up the trellis. Frederic gave a heave, the window’s warped wood gave a screech. Deirdre scrambled in and fell to the floor with a muffled ‘Oof!’ She held her breath, looking in fear at Frederic.

  He tiptoed to his door and cracked it. From the direction of his mother’s favorite room came a woman’s voice squawking cheerfully about hands soaking in dish soap. Commercial.

  He shut the door. “We’re okay.”

  Arthur leaned on an elbow. Since the tiny room only had a battered old dresser and the bed as furniture, Deirdre sat down on a braided rug. Frederic’s rooms were small and the walls a weird non-color much like her apartment, but he kept the floor swept and things fairly neat.

  “I thought you were kidding about the neighbor.” Deirdre pointed in the direction of the other house. “But when I snuck up to your house, I heard her at a front window yelling at a couple of kindergartners on their trikes, telling them they were making too much noise singing Car 54 Where ARRRRE You? When they started riding away, she started questioning one of them about why her dad got home so late last night, and where was he, and other stuff.” Deirdre rolled her eyes. “I made sure she didn’t see me.”

  “Good,” Frederic said, with feeling. “Now. Arthur, how can we get you to that gate thingio? Where is it?”

  Arthur said, “I have been pondering that question. I am very afraid we cannot get safely to the World Gate here. Kessler has to be watching it, or has warded it.”

  The other two stared at him in dismay.

  “What?”

  “What’ll we do? Can you make another one?” Frederic asked.

  Arthur gave a breathless laugh. “If I could do that, I would have been gone already. Such power is unknown to any mage living today. Gates exist, and though sometimes they appear or disappear, we have no knowledge of why. We only know this, that they only exist near water. There is something in the nature of water that affects space and time, or facilitates the, the...” He spoke another word, then said, “Call it in your tongue the shift, for I do not think there is a better word.”

  “Not for something nobody here can do,” Frederic said.

  Arthur nodded. “So, once I studied a map of your world, during an exercise. There are six Gates here, at least, so there were. I remember one was high, high in the north—about where my own city lies, were it on this world.”

  “Which continent?”

  “That I do not know. But it is believed that the Venn first came through there, in their long ships, uncounted centuries ago.”

  “North of Europe, then,” Deirdre said. “Sounds like those Viking guys. We can’t get there.”

  “Another amid many many little islands, in the south east of the biggest continent—kind of between where Sartor and Toar lie, only we have a land bridge between those, not an enormous island that might well be a continent.”

  Frederic and Deirdre looked at each other, both grimacing. Neither wanted to admit they were pretty lousy at map reading, not before this kid who knew his own geography well enough to compare it to another world’s.

  Frederic leaped up and pulled down a battered old atlas that he used for homework assignments.

  All three heads bent over it. “There,” Arthur said, pointing.

  “Java and Indonesia and all those—that’s even harder to get to than Europe,” Deirdre said. “Okay, that’s three, counting ours. Here’s us, by the way—North America. Any chance there might be one closer?”

  She spoke without much hope, but when Arthur frowned at the Great Lakes, his brow cleared, and he said, jabbing his finger on the west coast, “There is the newest one, that I remember well!”

  “California,” Frederic whispered. “We might actually be able to get you there. Uh, somehow. If we had lots of money. And transportation. And no school. Oh, and some grownup to take us.”

  “I’ve got to talk to my mom,” Deirdre said. “She’ll know.”

  The other two looked relieved.

  “Speaking of which, I better get home, or she’ll be worried. And she might even have to work tonight, since she didn’t last night. I’ll come back first thing in the morning, since we don’t have school. How’s that?”

  “Good idea,” Frederic said.

  Deirdre clambered back out the window. It was harder getting out without falling than it had been getting in. Her hands and shins got scratched up, but she kept as quiet as she could, and when she reached the grass, she ran around the side of the building away from the nosy neighbor.

  She reached home to find her mother anxiously awaiting her. Elian’s face cleared with relief as soon as Deirdre came in, and Deirdre said, “I’m sorry, mom. I didn’t have a dime to call you from Woolworth’s. We went to Frederic’s house to talk to Arthur.”

  Elian grabbed up her purse and keys. “Did you learn anything?”

  Deirdre talked as fast as she could. Her mother listened, frowning, then paused at the door. “Don’t answer the phone—I won’t call you. Don’t answer the door, either.”

  They both looked at the windows, which would be glowing with light as soon as the sun went down.

  Deirdre said, “I know, I’ll eat fast and take my bath now. After Ursel goes down, I’ll make a tent with my covers and read by flashlight. If anyone is spying, he’ll think we’re not home.”

  Elian thought, If he’s spying, he already knows you’re here. But she hoped Mr. Blick was gone. So she said only, “I’ll think about Arthur’s words at work. See you in the morning, dear.” She kissed both girls and left, Ursel waving her hands and saying “Bye! Bye! Bye!”

  Deirdre put her plan into action, choosing one of her favorite Enid Blyton adventure books for her flashlight read. The evening passed with no knocks on the door, no phone calls, and she fell asleep gratefully.

  In the morning, Elian said, “I am not sure how to get you kids all the way to California. Let me think about that. Meanwhile, since there’s no school today, here’s my suggestion. Take ten dollars from your babysitting money and go have fun today. Take Arthur to a movie. Let him taste some deep dish pizza. Just have fun, but don’t come back here until the day is over—and be very, very careful coming and going.”

  “Oh, wow,” Deirdre exclaimed. “Are you sure it’s okay?”

  Elian laughed. “Better than hiding around here all
day, right? Just make sure there’s no mysterious man in sight when you leave.”

  And Deirdre did. She peered around every corner, feeling like Agent 007 and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. combined. It was a relief to climb onto the bus—such a relief she never thought to look behind it, or she would have seen a cab pull out into the bus’s exhaust, a black-haired man sitting in the back seat.

  o0o

  Deirdre reached Frederic’s house after a quick run.

  She peeked out of the sides of her eyes, and sure enough, that woman was standing on her stoop in her bathrobe, narrowly watching some kids in their peddle cars. Deirdre felt her stare as she walked up to Frederic’s stoop, all polite and proper.

  The stoop was run down, with ivy grown up the supports; keeping the supports between herself and the woman, Deirdre crouched down, eased over the low fence around the stoop, and dropped into the weeds below one of the front windows. Keeping low, she sneaked around the side of the house and retraced her steps from the day before, scrambling up the trellis at the back and tapping lightly on the window.

  Frederic’s face appeared and he opened the casement. “Am I glad you’re here,” he exclaimed.

  “It was my mom’s idea,” she said. “She thinks we should go out and have fun today.”

  Frederic turned his head, as if listening, while Deirdre clambered inside. Then he whispered, “It was really, really bad last night. I thought he was out of his mind. I mean, he was talking in a weird language—almost yelling. I had to sit on him again.”

  Deirdre’s good mood evaporated a little. “Is he all right?”

  “Oh, now he is. It only last about an hour, though it seemed all night. When he finally fell asleep, I looked at the clock, and it was only midnight. And Mom was watching some late-night movie, all about some crazy woman with three personalities. Plenty of yelling and screaming, so she never heard Arthur.”

  “Yuk,” Deirdre said, following him into the bedroom.

  From the open window behind them came the sounds of the neighbor shrieking. Deirdre gave a sigh of relief. At least it wasn’t at her! She was sure she hadn’t been seen.

  Arthur looked a little pale, but otherwise perfectly sane as he greeted her in his pleasant accent. He paused in the middle of a smacking big breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs, but Frederic waved him on. “Eat! Only way to get some strength.”

  “I feel badly, doing so when you’ve none,” Arthur said.

  “I ate while I was cooking those—one for you and two for me,” Frederic said.

  “And I ate before I came,” Deirdre said. “You go right ahead.”

  “Did your mother have any ideas?” Frederic asked.

  Deirdre shook her head, as in the distance the sound of police sirens wailed. “But her suggestion was for us to spend the day having fun. Maybe something will turn up. Anyway, look what I have.” She pulled the ten dollar bill from the pocket of her sweater.

  “Wow,” Frederic said. “Ten clams.”

  “Clams?” Arthur asked, his fork pausing midair as he concentrated. “Is this not an undersea creature?”

  “Clams is slang for dollars,” Frederic said. “My brother Norm says it. I dunno why.”

  The sirens got louder, and all three paused. When the police siren abruptly ended, Frederic grinned. “Stopped next door. As usual. What you want to bet she called the police on those five-year-olds?”

  The kids laughed, then Frederic went to get the paper from his mother to find out what movies were playing. As Arthur finished up his breakfast the two finally agreed on the Beatles’ Help!, which both had liked. As a bonus, it was being shown at the cheapo rerun theater, where the tickets were only a quarter for kids, during the day. That left more to spend.

  Frederic then collected Arthur’s dishes, took them to the kitchen to wash up, while Deirdre explained the concept of movies to Arthur.

  And so by the time Frederic went noisily out the front door (telling his mother he had to go meet his friend Arthur for geography study, which wasn’t quite as much of a lie) and the other two had climbed out of the window down to the grass, the police were gone from next door, the neighbor had slammed her door in frustration because the man she’d seen lurking around was nowhere in sight.

  Frederic met the other two on the far side of his house, and led them over the neighbors’ fence and through a couple of yards before they emerged on the street behind Frederic’s, so the neighbor wouldn’t see them.

  That meant that Kessler—who’d had to retreat up the street to avoid the police—missed them as well. He waited with the patience of the hunter, and when the doors had closed along the street, he decided it was time to scout the house.

  He’d had the cab stop a good distance away so that Deirdre wouldn’t see him; he’d clearly seen her go up the walkway to the front porch of the shabby green house. He hadn’t actually seen the door—the porch was overhung by ivy—so he did not know who met Deirdre at the door to let her inside. It was more than likely that she was visiting some child from her school, or perhaps a relative, but she was the only lead he had.

  Now that the doors were closed and the adults gone back inside their houses, it was time to scout the green house. He slipped up the street and moved around the green house, pulling himself up to glance in the windows. Nothing but empty rooms, except in the front, where he saw a huge woman ensconced in an enormous chair, a bowl of some kind of food in her lap, and lights reflecting off her face from one of the talking picture boxes—this one with colored lights.

  He did not stop to pursue this mystery. He was after children, but at least in the lower rooms, there were no children in sight. Where was the babysitter, Deirdre Weiss?

  He cast a doubtful look at the upstairs windows. There was no way to get to them, except through the front door past the woman in the chair.

  When the loud woman in the housecoat appeared on her doorstep again, peering at him under her hand, he retreated to the corner, where he had bade the cab wait.

  He would have to return later.

  o0o

  The three kids spent a wonderful day. Arthur was confused by the movie (though some of it made him laugh). He was more interested in how it worked than in what it was about. Frederic and Deirdre tried to explain electricity, but their understanding was imperfect, and Arthur silently concluded that electricity was different from magic in that one required tools to manipulate it, not words and intent.

  They had pizza and then went to a park, where a bunch of kids forming a softball game invited the boys to join. Deirdre shrugged when Arthur turned her way, wondering why she wasn’t included. “Go ahead. This is supposed to be fun for you.”

  She avoided the gaggle of giggling girls who seemed to think Arthur, with his longish, curling hair, was ‘as cute as Paul.’

  Frederic hated sports except for wrestling, but he plugged grimly along in the outfield, until he saw that Arthur was bored by a game in which you spend most of your time either standing around waiting for the ball, or sitting around waiting to hit it.

  So they left in search of dessert. Arthur privately thought the foods were far too salty, but now it was time for a wonderful discovery: ice cream. There was nothing like it in Bereth Ferian.

  If he got home, he vowed as he followed the other two to the bus stop, he was going to see that remedied.

  When Arthur got that set look to his face, Frederic and Deirdre decided it was time to call it a day, and she left them at the bus stop. The boys made their way back to Frederic’s house. By then Arthur was too tired to climb the trellis, so he insisted his mother would not mind Arthur coming over again ‘to study’ and he was right.

  Mrs. Holmes greeted Arthur, who bowed, and responded so politely she could not forbear a little hint that Frederic might do well to pick up some of his friend’s manners.

  That used up the last of Arthur’s energy. He collapsed into Frederic’s big chair, and promptly fell asleep. Truth to tell, he was dreading eleven o’clock. He knew Kessler wa
s going to torment him by magic again, trying to force him to surrender himself.

  Frederic waited until sundown. Next time his mother went to the kitchen to fetch something to drink, he loudly called, “Good bye-Arthur! See you at school Monday!” and he slammed the door.

  Then he returned to his room and looked doubtfully at Arthur’s pale face half-hidden by an arm curved over his head. But Frederic did not disturb him, only retreated to his bedroom with the newest copy of MAD Magazine to read.

  Arthur was still asleep when the doorbell rang, not long after ten. It was quite dark out now, and Frederic heard his mother grumbling as she rose to answer the door. Frederic didn’t think it could possibly have anything to do with him, yet he lurked behind the door at the top of the stairs, heart pounding when he heard a low, husky, accented voice, “I seek Prince Irtur den Evend Vithyavadnais.”

  “Who?” Mrs. Holmes demanded. “Did you say Prince? What kind of game is this?”

  Kessler said, “I seek a missing boy. He has yellow hair, he wears a shirt of white, dark trousers, and he is about this size. His name is Prince Irtur—”

  Mrs. Holmes thought of Frederic’s polite friend, but he’d left hours ago. He wasn’t any prince, and his name was Arthur—a good, honest American name. “Who do you think you are, coming around people’s homes at this hour?”

  “That’s what I want to know!” came a strident voice from next door, so loud in its righteous indignation that Frederic could hear it from inside his house. “Why, that’s the same prowler I caught peering in your windows this morning!”

  Enmity forgotten, Mrs. Holmes gripped her door, keeping her mighty bulk squarely in the way. She peered past Kessler to her neighbor—who stood on her porch, goggling against the glare of her floodlight. “You did?”

 
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