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Chapter 3
Luke collapsed on the couch with his laptop when he got back to his little sublet apartment.  His internship at Proctor and Gamble was exhausting enough without the last several months of family drama, and all he really wanted right now was a little peace and quiet to check his e-mail and a cold can of soda.  And maybe some time with Grace, but that was a little harder to arrange while she was in New York and he was in Cincinnati.
He glanced through the spam folder first; the filter was a little indiscriminate and sometimes sent things there that didn’t belong.  He had scrolled about halfway through the list when his sister’s name caught his eye.  He clicked on it without hesitation and read it through twice before reaching for his cell phone.
Joan had been in Missouri, and she’d been all right.  That was the important part, the part his mother would want to know.  The kid who’d sent the e-mail said she’d given him Luke’s address because the boy reminded her of him.  Apparently she thought they should talk.  Luke tapped out a quick reply, trying not to display his anxiety.  This secondhand reference was the first they’d heard of Joan in over six months.
A new message from the boy in Missouri, Jonathon McCoy, was waiting when he got off the phone with his mother.  It gave a few more details, all Luke had felt comfortable asking a child.  Reading between the lines, it seemed like she was still pregnant, which was what he had expected.  Joan wouldn’t have cut ties so completely with the family unless she had set her mind on keeping the baby.  Luke had never met anyone as stubborn as his sister when she decided to do something.
The rest of the information was general.  She’d been helping the local library move into a new building, shelving books and setting up computers, but she had left town three weeks later when the work was finished.  Jonathon said that she’d told him she was needed somewhere else, but she hadn’t named the place.
Luke wondered about that ‘needed somewhere else’ line.  Was his sister sick again?  She had acted like that sometimes when the Lyme disease had been active in her system.  On the other hand, she could have had a job lined up at her destination.  If Joan was traveling from place to place, getting paid under the table at whatever job she found, she would be nearly impossible to find.  She hadn’t used her credit cards since she’d left, and she’d left her cell phone and her car at her apartment at school.  He was starting to suspect that no one would find Joan until and unless she wanted to be found.
None of that mattered to Luke.  He’d be heading to Missouri this weekend.
Alicia was the one to answer the door when Joan knocked.  The girl’s surprised expression quickly turned to one of caution, and she held the door open without saying anything.
Joan stepped over the threshold of the Carpenter’s house without hesitation.  She knew she was always welcome here.  Alicia relaxed and hugged her and the young woman hugged back, glad for the contact.  “What happened?”  The rule about issuing invitations was typically only enforced after dusk, and it was ten in the morning.
“Molly and Mr. Dresden got hurt,” Alicia said, stepping back from the hug and looking up at her with serious eyes.  “Daddy said we have to be careful until they’re better.”
“How bad is Molly hurt?”  She shrugged out of her backpack and left it next to the couch.
“Pretty bad.  Mom thinks she should still be in the hospital, but Molly was worried that someone would get hurt because of her.”  Alicia smiled suddenly, the mischievous smile of a younger sibling.  “She’ll be glad you’re here.  She was starting to go stir crazy in her room, so Mom sent in Hope and Harry to keep her company.”
“I’m guessing that went well,” said Joan as she headed for the stairs.
“They decorated her casts for her,” the girl said, grinning.  “Hope drew rainbows and Harry drew trucks.”  Alicia headed back to the living room and the book she had been reading, leaving Joan alone as she climbed the stairs.
She met Charity as the older woman was coming out of the guest bedroom with a garbage bag.  “Joan?  I thought you were in Missouri.”
Joan shrugged.  “I was told to come back.”  She watched as something that looked like realization crossed Charity’s face.  “Do you have room for me?”
“Always,” Charity said, pulling her into a hug.  “You’ll have to share with Molly, though.  Dresden is in the guest room right now.”
“Alicia told me they were hurt.”
Charity nodded as she led the way to Molly’s bedroom.  “Molly broke her wrist, ankle and two ribs, has a mild concussion, and had a punctured lung.  Dresden’s even worse off, which is the only reason he’s in the guest bedroom right now.” 
Charity had intentionally left the details vague, and Joan knew enough not to ask.  It was one of the unspoken agreements of this arrangement: Joan didn’t ask about what Molly and her odd tutor/boss did, and she didn’t offer up specifics of her own special situation to anyone but Michael and Charity.  She followed Charity through the open door to Molly’s room.  Molly was propped up against the headboard with pillows, looking pale and a little subdued.  “Joan,” she exclaimed, wincing as she attempted to move.  She dropped the book she was reading.
“Hey, take it easy,” Joan scolded.  “I swear, I leave for a couple of weeks and you go and get yourself hurt.”
“What, this?”  Molly waved the arm that was currently encased inside of a cast. As advertised, it sported several different boxy shapes that could be trucks if you squinted just right. “This is nothing.  You should see the other guy.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”  
Joan gingerly leaned over the bed and hugged her friend, nearly losing her balance as she did so.  Both girls started giggling, although Molly’s were short-lived due to the pain in her ribs.  She reached out for Joan’s belly with her unbroken right hand.  “Wow,” she breathed.
“I know,” Joan sighed.  “Growing by leaps and bounds.”  She sat down on the bed next to Molly.
Charity smiled at the two friends.  “I’ll let you two catch up.”  She disappeared through the door, leaving them alone.
“So have you felt him moving around yet,” Molly asked eagerly.
“Yeah, at the bus station of all places.  It scared the crap out of me.  It’s all starting to become so real, y’know?”  She leaned back against the pillows next to Molly.  “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you got hurt.”
Molly shrugged.  “It’s not like you could have done something to stop it.  And now you can guard me against small children with markers.”
“What makes you so sure I don’t have a set of my own?”  Joan grinned at her friend.  She dropped her hand down to her belly when she felt movement.  “Did you feel that?”
Molly had a look of concentration on her face.  “Nope.  Think he’ll move again?”
“Probably.  I think I’m carrying a future Olympic hopeful with all the gymnastics he’s doing in there.”  She closed her eyes and let her head fall back.  “You’ve got a really comfortable bed.”
“Good thing you like it.  If you’re staying for a little while, we’re going to probably be roomies.”
The two friends sat there chatting for a while.  Joan got Molly her meds when the appointed time came around and then went down to the kitchen to forage for food when they got hungry.  Charity was in the middle of dinner preparations when she got downstairs, so she skipped the snack and helped the older woman put together trays for Molly and the family friend in the guest room, who she still hadn’t met.    Charity loaded up the tray for Molly, no doubt knowing that Joan would be eating with her oldest daughter.
The two enjoyed the impromptu slumber party, sitting up and talking late into the night before deciding to turn off the lights and go to sleep.  Because of her injuries, Molly had to sleep propped up to avoid fluid collecting in her lungs, and she didn’t find it very restful.  Mostly she dozed in and out with her friend curled up on the queen bed beside her.
It was during one of the ‘in’ times that Joan had the nightmare.  Molly was trying to force herself back into sleep (she’d never had much luck with counting sheep) when she heard the girl moan and felt her shift on the bed.  She reached out to touch Joan on the shoulder and wake her up, but as soon as she made contact with the other girl there was a flash and she was standing someplace that was definitely not her bedroom. 
The apprentice wizard looked around carefully.  She couldn’t seem to make herself walk anywhere to explore her surroundings.  Was she in some kind of vision?  Then a worse thought occurred: had she accidentally gotten into Joan’s head?  Molly studied the funhouse around her and gratefully crossed that off the list.  There was no way her friend was this disturbed.
Then a tall, good-looking young man hurried past her and headed straight for the pipe organ in the corner.  Molly watched as he reached in and grabbed one of the brass pipes before jerking away, hissing in pain.  He wrapped his hands and tried again, working one of the pipes free.  Another man walked up to him, not quite as tall but definitely as handsome, and then it began to get confusing.  The entire scene sped up as knives were thrown by an invisible attacker, until finally the first man stabbed the pipe he had broken off into whatever they were fighting.  Molly gasped and found herself back in her room on her bed.  Joan was looking at her with bleary, confused eyes.  “Are you all right?”
“Bad dream,” Molly said, wondering what in the world had just happened.
“You too?”  The other girl yawned and squirmed into a more comfortable position.  “I think we need to put a hold on the spicy food before bedtime.”
“You’re the one who suggested the nachos.”
“You should never listen to a pregnant woman and her cravings,” Joan said, her voice drowsy.  “I was eating tomatoes whole while I was in Missouri.  I could find them at all the farmers’ markets and bought them every time.  I couldn’t stop myself.”  She groaned as if having a sudden thought.  “I bet your mom is going to drag me to see Patricia next week.  I’m going to be in so much trouble for this.”
“Don’t worry about it.  Mom won’t tell.”
“Patricia will just know.  She’s kind of scary like that.”
Molly was the one that groaned this time.  “Just go to sleep.  You can be good tomorrow.”
The young woman stepped back into the controlled chaos of their family like she’d never been gone, splitting her time between taking care of Molly and keeping the children occupied and all but refusing to leave the house for anything other than her appointment with Patricia.  Charity didn’t bring up Joan’s newfound reserve when it came to strangers, although she couldn’t help but wonder about it.
Dresden’s injuries healed enough that he could return home after a couple of weeks, and Joan moved out of Molly’s room and into the relative privacy of the guest room.  Charity dragged down the box of utilitarian maternity clothing that usually lived in the attic and allowed the girl free reign with the sewing machine after showing her the basics.  Joan needed the clothing more than she did.  And if she sometimes woke up in the middle of the night and heard the battered machine whirring, she didn’t say anything to the girl.  Charity knew and understood that kind of therapeutic work more than anyone.
Joan shifted on the pew while she watched the adult Carpenters file out to receive communion.  Attending Sunday mass was one of the concessions she made for Charity.  She didn’t really mind most of it, but the idea of communion or confession or any of the other things associated with the Catholic Church made her feel uneasy.  She was Catholic only in the most tenuous sense and she had her own way of talking to God.
After the benediction, she followed Charity and Michael out to the parking lot, the herd of Carpenter children milling around the adults in an almost organized fashion.  Joan stepped back from the van so Charity could help Michael and Daniel could load in the smaller children, stumbling over the curb as she moved.  She was saved from falling by a hand on her elbow.
“Careful there,” said the man behind her, and Joan felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up.  She turned to look at the figure, breaking his hold on her arm as Charity came up beside her.  “Wouldn’t want anything to happen to that baby.”  He smiled and Joan recoiled, stepping back towards the church, her instincts screaming GET AWAY GET AWAY GET AWAY.
With another smile and a nod, the man walked away, quickly disappearing into the crowd.  Charity watched him go with a frown on her face before turning to Joan.  “What was that about?”
Joan shook her head, too rattled to do much more.  She climbed into the van and settled into the seat.  Her nerves were shot and her hands shook slightly, and she wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened.  She just knew that it was very bad.
When they got back to the house, the young woman excused herself from Sunday lunch and headed up the spare room, still hers for the time being.  She changed out of the dress she’d been wearing and into something more comfortable and practical before sinking down onto the twin bed. Whatever had happened outside of the church, it left her shaken to the core and more frightened than she’d ever been.  Just standing near that man had made her queasy; his hand on her elbow had sent forth screaming messages of WRONG WRONG WRONG and if she’d been forced to stay there, Joan was sure that she would have thrown up.  Even now, just thinking about it, she felt unsettled.
“You need to leave Chicago.”  Joan looked up as God sat down next to her, His piercings glinting in the light.  It was startling to see Him in the tiny, crowded room, sitting on the twin bed beside her.  “Take the train to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.”
“Right now?”
“Tomorrow, Joan.  It can wait while you get some rest.”  He placed one pale, slender hand on her abdomen; the black-painted fingernails looked odd against the cheerful print of the maternity top she was wearing.  “You won’t be back for a while.  Make sure you say goodbye to everyone.”
“What happened today?”  Joan’s voice was quiet as she asked the question.  “Who was that man?”
“Wrong question, Joan.  It’s not who the man was.  It’s what he is.”  With that, he stood up and walked through the bedroom doorway, his hand raised in a wave.
The kitchen light was on when Molly finally got home from her latest lesson with Harry in making things explode, and she wandered over to see who was up at this hour.  It was a school night; if one of the kids were awake, then they would be sick and needing help.
It turned out to be Joan sitting at the table, stirring the melted remains of a dish of ice cream.  “This was good ice cream,” she said, her voice pensive.  “I just lost interest halfway through.”
“What are you doing up?”
“Waiting for you.  I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to see you tomorrow morning.”
“You’re leaving again?”
Joan nodded and continued playing with her food.  “I don’t really want to,” she confessed.  “Your family’s been great.  I wish I could stay.  But I can’t live in a bubble.”  She pushed her bowl aside and settled back in her chair, resting her hands on her belly.  “And I think it might be safer if I keep moving,” she said quietly.
Molly frowned at that last statement.  “Why do you say that?”
The other girl was silent for a minute or so, choosing her words carefully.  “There are . . . some nasty people out there who would like to get their hands on this baby.  It’s harder for them to find me when I’m in motion.”
This was the closest Joan had come to mentioning things from the spooky side of the street, although Molly had long suspected that she knew about them. She took too many of the right precautions to be wholly ignorant of the supernatural.  But why did she have this particular worry?  Molly studied her friend more closely, reaching out with all her senses.
Over the last few weeks the baby had taken center stage with a vengeance.  Joan was carrying high and forward, so it looked like she was hiding a soccer ball under her shirt.  She’d become increasingly uncomfortable among crowds of people as the pregnancy progressed, and had spent quite a bit of time holed up in the Carpenter house since she’d returned.  Molly had thought this was a combination of self-consciousness about her appearance and shame over the situation, but obviously there was more to it than that.  Now that she was concentrating on Joan, she could feel a very faint pulse of power.
To the best of Molly’s knowledge, Joan had no magical abilities whatsoever.  There was a definite power around her, but it was more like someone or something else had marked her.  This feeling was probably coming from the baby she was carrying.  “Tell me about the father,” Molly blurted out.
Her friend sighed and readjusted her posture.  “It should never have happened.  It’s just . . . I was so lonely, and Sam was there and he was lonely too, and we started talking, and then we started kissing.  The next thing I know, I’m taking him back to my apartment for a little privacy.”  She stopped there and looked down at her belly.  “He was back on the road with his brother the next morning.  I haven’t heard from him since.”
“Do you have any way to contact him, let him know about the baby?”
Joan’s head jerked up.  “I’m not going to contact him.  If he wants to know, he’ll have to find me.”
Molly quickly abandoned that line of conversation, although she noticed that Joan hadn’t really answered the question.  She returned to her earlier train of thought.  “Do you know if he had . . . I mean, was he . . .?”
“You mean, did he have some connection to the weird and strange?”  Apparently Joan was tired of dancing around the topic as well.  “Maybe.  He had some weird habits.”
“After he left, I found a line of salt in front of all the windows and the door.”
“Salt’s a pretty effective barrier against demons,” the wizard-in-training said.  “A circle of salt is a quick and dirty way to protect yourself when you can’t get behind a good threshold.”
Joan nodded, absorbing the information.  She was very aware of the power of home and threshold.  “I’m pretty sure he spilled holy water on me, too.  ‘Accidentally,’ of course.  I think he was checking to make sure I wasn’t possessed.”
Molly smiled.  “Was he cute?”
Joan turned pink.  “So cute.  Tall, gorgeous dimples, and very nicely put together, with broad shoulders and hazel-green eyes.”  She sighed and ran one hand over her belly, as if to remind herself of the end result of that encounter.  “He was my first, you know?  And every girl has this fantasy about how it will be this magical time of romance and connection and sharing.  Figuring out the next morning that he doesn’t see it the same way isn’t part of that.”  Joan pushed herself up from the table, rinsed out her dish and left it in the sink.  “I better try to get some sleep.  Your mom is dragging me to see Patricia for one last appointment before I leave tomorrow.”  She pulled Molly into a slightly awkward hug and headed for the stairs.
As she curled up on her side on the twin bed in the guest room, Joan wondered why she hadn’t told her friend about the dreams.  Molly would have understood, might have even been able (and willing) to explain them.  When asked, God had just smiled mysteriously, in that irritating way He had, and refused to tell her why she’d been having dreams about Sam and his brother.
They had started slowly, one or two a week at the beginning, and then built until she saw the two of them every time she fell asleep.  Sam and his brother, usually fighting things that most people didn’t believe in, played on the big screen in her mind with such frequency and stark clarity that she sometimes worried about her sanity.  The dreams were so vivid that she woke up gasping for breath.  She wasn’t sure which was worse, the visions of violence or the reenactments of their one night together, which didn’t come as often but were just as intense.
She’d tentatively brought up the subject of dreams to Charity, who’d reminded her that the sex dream was fairly common.  She hadn’t had the nerve to ask about the other dreams.
Joan sighed and adjusted her pillow. Time to prepare for another restless night.  Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
Azazel turned the stolen lips of his host up into a smile.  The child was coming along nicely.  The young mother was disappointingly average, but the paternal contribution more than made up for it.  Mary Campbell really had been the gift that kept on giving.  The possibilities were tantalizing, even though they might cause him to adjust his timetable for a few years.  After all, what did a couple of decades matter in the grand scheme of things?
This particular project was becoming far too interesting to place to the side.  The deal had to be made before the child reached six months.  After that, he would lose his window to taint the child until he became an adult, and it would be much more difficult to bend him to the demon’s purposes.
Ava Wilson and Andy Gallagher would just have to wait.  Watching Sam’s little broodmare had just become his newest project.  She would have to come out of this little sanctuary eventually.

Chapter 4