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           Dragon's Bones

 

            

 

           Darkness squeezed her as Alice Haskell squirmed through cold muck and stretched another couple of inches, ignoring pain that burned deep under her left shoulder blade. And then she changed her mind and concentrated on that pain, that reminder of past sins and mistakes, taking it as a kinesthetic mantra that forced her thoughts away from the creaking, groaning weight of log truck hanging over her, lying on its side like a mechanical dead mastodon.

 

           Dark, deep shadows under doom on a cold gray afternoon. How goddamn poetic, she thought.

 

           Reality was a lot less so. Cold muck underneath. Cold steel and tons of ice-crusted logs above, cold March air in- between, and the near-permafrost of early Maine mud-season a few inches down. How the hell that damned incompetent loader-jockey had managed to find a thawed spring-hole to swallow his outrigger base . . .

 

           She could see the victim, a shadow pinned in shadow. He wasn't moving. She couldn't tell if he was breathing, heart beating, living. If he was already dead, they didn't need to worry about time.

 

           The rescue squad could back off and wait, leave things for the cops and OSHA, let a heavy wrecker roll the capsized rig off the body, get sloppy. Still alive, they'd deploy the air bags to lift the wreck off him, gently gently gently, do all the rest of the delicate complicated dance of mercy. And risk other lives, playing up close and personal with an unstable wreck on a muddy slope, which was why they needed her verdict stat. And the unstable bit was why nobody dared breathe within a hundred feet of the mess while she was underneath . . .

 

           Damned chunk of ledge blocked her, pinched her against the side and fuel tank and leaking reeking diesel of the capsized truck. If she was Kate, she could ask that stone to move. Stone liked Kate -- the bones of Maine, Stonefort granite her family had touched for a score of generations, the Rowleys, the Rowan-leas, channels for earth-magic. Alice's power lay in another ancient direction, Naskeag tribal shaman-witch from a line that stretched back through First People women to the last ice age.

 

           Maybe further.

 

           The ledge eased away from her ribs, almost as if it had felt her thoughts of Kate, as if by pleasing Kate's lover it served Kate. Alice gained another half a foot, a foot, pulse buzzing on adrenaline. She stretched against the pain, against the cold of almost-spring mud soaking up from frozen ground through her EMT jump-suit, against the stink of grease and leaking hydraulic fluid and diesel from the truck. Against the feel of crushing weight over her, wanting to settle closer to something solid.

 

           Sometimes her size helped. Less than five feet tall and skinny to match, a natural spelunker, her midget body fit through spaces like this. Nobody else on the site could have. Even so, she dragged the tug of a rope loop on her right ankle, a lifeline back to clean air and light if she got stuck.

 

          

 

           Another squirm through the mud, tucking her head down to clear some hard-edged chunk of metal bolted to the cold iron truck-bed beam pressing down on her back, on that shoulder blade with the aching healing 9mm hole, and she stretched again and touched flesh. Clammy flesh, slicked with sweat. She couldn't see what she touched, couldn't turn her head, but she felt beard stubble and the angle of a jaw and followed it to throat and stretched tendons.

 

           And a pulse in the carotid.

 

           "He's alive!"

 

           Shouts filtered through the jumbled metal, turned to murmurs by distance, the crew moving into that dance of rescue. Now she had to make sure they weren't wasting their time, their efforts, their risk.

 

           A weak pulse, low blood pressure, shock. She let her senses and her magic flow up her arm and through her fingers into that sweat-damp clammy flesh. She fed energy, strengthened the heart, felt for injuries in his aura. Broken bones. Pinched circulation, one leg crushed, femur. Unconscious, but skull and brain intact. Chest squeezed but nothing broken.

 

           He'll live. Probably gonna lose that leg. Crushing trauma is a goddamn bitch.

 

           "Pull me out!"

 

           She let her body go limp, left foot hooked over her right ankle to narrow her profile, hands dragging arms over her head, and slithered backward through the greasy mud. Things snagged at her, -- the ledge, bits of broken truck --and she heard cloth ripping. Another jump-suit shot to hell. Fire burned along her right butt cheek as something scraped her widest point. She told the nerves to shut up. They obeyed. Good thing she kept her tetanus shots up-to-date.

 

           But that was part of being an EMT, being an emergency-room RN.

 

           Light flooded around her and hands replaced the tug of the rope, pulling her free, setting her on her feet, a quick anonymous hug of welcome back to the land of the living. She swiped her sleeve at the mud on one cheek, smearing it, making it worse. She blinked in the sudden glare of overcast gray skies and staggered over to lean against the side of a pickup truck, catching her breath now that she had room to breathe. Ten feet, maybe twelve she guessed, the distance she'd slithered in along a twisty diagonal tunnel under the wreck, the distance they'd pulled her back out.

 

           Felt like a mile.

 

           Heavy lifting now, getting jacks and cable stays with come-alongs out to trees and the air bags into place, stuff she couldn't help with. Not big enough, not strong enough. Hell, she barely weighed enough for effective CPR. If they got the guy out still breathing, then she'd take over with her peculiar skills and strengths, keep him alive on the long ride to the ER. Or maybe he'd be bad enough off to need the air ambulance. She tried to gauge this clearing in the woods as a helicopter's landing zone, a flat over there, did it give enough clearance for the rotors, land and lift-off into the wind?

 

           No. Too risky. They'll have to land by the road, old hay-field out there, carry the victim out to them in a Stokes basket. At least, no power lines to dodge on the gravel road. Too far back in the woods.

 

           Stonefort, harbor village and island and township, sat at the ass-end of Maine, and this logging site was ten miles of bad road into the puckerbrush even by Stonefort standards. Not the sort of place you wanted to be when a medical emergency hit. Her job, EMT and emergency-room nurse and witch, was to keep that isolation from taking too many lives.

 

           And to protect Stonefort's people in other ways.

 

           She forced herself away from the pickup's brace and stood on her own two feet, shrugging and stretching and shaking the aches and jitters out of her body, coming down from the junkie-rush of ambulance and ER work that kept her coming back for more -- the maybe-ex-pirate Morgans weren't the only Stonefort family gene-selected for life on danger's knife edge . . .

 

           Break's over, back to work. Something had caught her eye, coming in, even through the controlled hustle and bustle of a medical emergency. Something just a bit . . . off. Something sour like a quart of milk a week past its sell-by date. Something that put the hair up on the back of her neck.

 

           A working wood-yard stretched around her -- churned mud and forest leaf-mold muck, fresh stumps, scattered piles of slash from the branches and saplings cleared away for logging. Looked typical, nothing wrong there. The only things out of place were the Stonefort ambulance and the fire department rescue van, pulled in as far as they dared without four-wheel drive. Which wasn't far.

 

           Three crew-cab pickup trucks, look like four-wheel-drives and pretty new, a hulking yellow Cat grapple skidder, the log truck lying on its side with a section of huge old red-oak trunk still clenched in the jaw of its wrecked loader arm. Probably the cause of the roll-over, tried to lift too much weight too far out and the outrigger sank into the mud.

 

           And the operator got thrown free, earning himself a broken arm and ribs and a concussion, nothing life-threatening. It was the guy standing next to the loader where he never should have been who ended up underneath all that metal . . .

 

           Leverage. And greed. The oak looked like a veneer log to Alice's untrained eye, more than three feet through with a sound heart and straight, old-growth premium wood, and several more like it waited to be loaded. Also sugar maple, judging by the bark, and beech and ash and yellow birch, each yarded separately, all big logs, all money logs.

 

           Thousands of dollars on the hoof. Probably tens of thousands, that wasn't the sort of thing Alice needed to know. Kate would know, part of her carpentry-contracting business, one of a dozen hats she wore.

 

           None of the trucks carried signs on their doors. Most legit logging companies liked to advertise. And splashed mud didn't account for the way all the license plates had somehow gotten caked over to the point where you couldn't even tell what state they came from. Gyppo loggers.

 

           But that wasn't it, either. Common fraud or theft wouldn't set off her witchy nerves. God Himself knew Haskells didn't pay a lot of attention to the governor or Congress. Nobody in Stonefort did. Couldn't afford to, living on the thin-ice edge of poverty where something as simple as a deer out of season or looking the other way when the drug-smugglers rowed ashore could mean you fed the kids this month . . .

 

           But those brown faces hovering around the edge of the scene, scared Latino faces trying to hide from the world, she zeroed in on them. Haskell witches learned to read people like they read books, and those men, those men and two women, weren't scared by the accident, weren't scared for the injured men.

 

           They were scared for themselves.

 

           And while Haskell witches didn't care much about the law, they cared very much about right and wrong. Which was often a separate thing. Women on a logging site, not dressed for work, no steel-toed work boots and hard-hats and Carhartt coveralls? Not even dressed for Maine weather?

 

           Hostages?

 

           Chaining the men to a job that had turned toxic? "You can't run away -- we have your women!" And any time they moved, they'd split them up between those crew-cab trucks. Divide and conquer.

 

           Alice pulled her cell phone out of a zippered inner pocket, safe from the mud and scrapes. She punched a memory number, trying Kate's cell first -- she'd probably be on the road -- then the House. If those failed, she'd call Sunrise County dispatch and have them get on the cop radio. That was last resort, because some bright boy out here might have a police-band scanner going.

 

           That was another of Kate's various hats -- part-time town constable, badge and gun and all. And like Alice, Kate felt a lot more duty to justice than to small matters of law. The Rowleys had served Stonefort as judge and jury and sometimes executioner for centuries, well before the thieving English shoved their noses and swords and grabby hands back into the lives of Welsh refugees living peacefully with the local Naskeag tribe . . .

 

           *

 

           Kate Rowley eased her truck back from the ambulance she'd just winched out of a mud-hole and then plugged the logging road again behind it. Then she took another minute to think about what Alice had said, the details, and pulled her badge and .44 magnum out of the glove compartment of the old cobbled-together one-ton Dodge 4x4.

 

           The badge made her look official, if you didn't read the fine print that said "Town Constable" rather than something serious like "Maine State Police" or "Deputy Sheriff, Sunrise County," and the Colt Anaconda made her look like somebody you wanted to obey even if you did know the details. That, and standing six-foot-six in bare feet and weighing about two-sixty, two-eighty, most of it muscle. Between the badge and the gun and sheer looming presence, she figured she could face down Paul Bunyan long enough for backup.

 

           Time to play Dirty Harry hard-ass, until OSHA and La Migra and the Sheriff's patrol got here. Which, in the case of OSHA, could be two hours or more, all the way down from Naskeag Falls.

 

           Anyway, that logging crew would have to crank up the skidder to budge her truck, and a .44 slug to the engine block would stop that right damn fast. If necessary. She hung the cannon on her hip and pinned her badge to her work shirt. And hauled herself out of the truck cab.

 

           Threat assessment: Two white men besides the two hauled off to Sunrise General, redneck squinty-eyed stubble-chin badass sort, she knew the type from clearing late-night bars. They looked like they bossed the crew with their fists and basic meanness. She was bigger than either of them, and had the Colt. She paused and pulled a couple of pairs of plastic handcuffs out from behind her truck seat and tucked them into the back pocket of her jeans. Disposables, no key to worry about.

 

           Lower threat: Four shorter, wider brown men with a scared look, Central American look, mixed Mayan -- she couldn't tell if they were Mexican or Guatemalan or what. And she didn't speak Spanish, except a few snatches and phrases for breaking up fights between migrant workers on the blueberry barrens come raking time.

 

           Counterfeit green-cards, day-long interrogations with written transcripts by certified interpreters -- those were La Migra's job, not hers.

 

           And two or three other small brown shapes that had faded off into the woods when she first pulled into the clearing. Those weren't on the threat radar, either. Might be Alice business, House business, for later. First things first.

 

           I know who owns these woods. Old Elsie Darling might be in "assisted living" up in Naskeag Falls, but she's still sharp as a carpet tack. She'd never have signed a cheapo cut-and-run logging contract to sell off high-grade wood. And her boys wouldn't dare cross her on this, and none of them really needs the money . . .



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