Thursday, June 16, 6:19 a.m.
T wo words I never thought would go together: Joanne Walker and 6:00 a.m.
Never mind that that's actually four words, five if you spell out ante meridiem. If you're going to get technical, you're going to lose all your friends. The point is, it was Oh God Early and I was not only up, but at work. Not even at work. I was volunteering. Volunteering my own precious sleeping time, five hours before I was supposed to be at work. I was so noble I could kill myself.
While I was busy admiring my nobility, a bunch of protesters linked arms and waded toward the police line I was a part of. There were considerably more of them than there were of ushence me being there at alland the power of authority as granted to us by the city of Seattle wasn't pulling a lot of weight with them. They weren't violent, just determined. I spread my arms wide and leaned into the oncoming mass, blowing a whistle that was more noisome than effective. The protesters stopped close enough that I could count the individual silver hairs on the head of the man in front of me, who stood there, Right In My Personal Space.
People have gotten shot for less.
Not, however, by me, and besides, as one of the city's finest, I wasn't in a position to be shooting people just for getting in my personal space. Instead, I took a step forward, trusting my own presence to be enough to cow them. It was; the silver-haired guy in front of me shifted back, making a bow in his line. I pressed my advantage, arms still spread wide, and they all fell back a step.
I let go a sigh of relief that I couldn't let them see, herding them back several more steps before I let up, and backed up again myself. They watched me, silent, sullen, and short.
I was working on a theory that said all environmentalists were short. I knew it was wrongAl Gore is a tall manbut it gave me something to do while I played push-me-pull-you with the protesters. Of course, most people are short compared to me: I stood a smidge under six feet in socks, and the sturdy black walking shoes I wore put me an inch over.
Behind me lay the summertime glory of the Seattle Center, where a symposium on global warming was being held. Representatives from every oil company, every car manufacturer, every corporation that had ever been fined for too many dirty emissions being pumped out into the air were gathered there to argue their case against the bleeding-heart liberals who thought a little clean air wasn't asking too much.
Sarcasm aside, the greenies were losing major ground and had been since the symposium had opened two days earlier. The federal administration favored big money and big companies, and those companies were taking as much advantage as they could.
My own sympathies lay a whole lot more with the protesters and their concerns about details like global warming. It was already in the high seventies and it wasn't yet seven in the morning, which was just wrong for mid-June.
But it wasn't my job to have an opinion about who was right and who was wrong. It was my job to keep the several thousand men and women who were gathered at the Center from breaking through and rending the Armani suits from the bodies of the corpulent pigs managing the slaughter.
"Officer?" A woman's voice, high-pitched with worry, broke me out of my cheerfully spiraling cynicism. I turned toward her, one hand still lifted in warning against the crowd. I suspected a trick: distract the cop for a minute while everybody surges forward, therefore losing the law a few precious feet of land. There were more physical barriers than just the police officers keeping people off the Center groundsbright orange, cordoned sawhorses surrounded the entire placebut it was its own sort of psychological warfare.
The woman held a pale-cheeked sleeping girl in her arms. "She fainted," the woman said. Her voice was thready with concern and fear. "Please, I think she needs a doctor."
Right behind the bottom of my breastbone, centered in the diaphragm, a coil of energy flared up, making a cool fluttering space inside me. It demanded attention, making my hands cramp and my stomach churn. I rubbed my sternum, swallowing back the wave of nausea. I'd gotten good at ignoring that sensation in the past several months, pretending I couldn't feel it wrapped around my insides, waiting for me to give in and use it again. Having it crop up so sharply made me feel as pale as the girl. My hand, without any conscious order from my brain, reached out to touch her forehead. Her skin was cold and sticky with sweat.
For the first time since I'd nearly burned out in March, I lost the battle with the energy within me. It shot through me, making silver-tinted rainbows beneath my skin, and strained at my fingertips, trying to pass from me into the chilly-skinned child. Had she been an adult, I might have been able to pull back and refuse yet again to acknowledge its existence.
But she was a kid, and whether I wanted the power and responsibility I'd unintentionally taken on, a six-year-old didn't deserve to suffer for my stubbornness. Silver-sheened magic told me in the most simple, non-medical terms possible, that the girl was suffering from near heatstroke.
To mea mechanic by trade, even if I was a cop by daythat meant her engine had overheated.
Fixing an overheated engine's not a hard thing. You pop the hood, pour new water into the radiator and try not to get burned by the steam, then do it again until the radiator's full and the engine's cooled down.
Translating that to a child sick with heat was surprisingly easy. The energy inside me boiled with eagerness to flow out of me and into the girl, but I made it drip instead of pour, afraid of what might happen if her system cooled down too rapidly. I could actually envision the steam hissing off her as heat gradually was replaced by my cool silver strength. It seemed a wonder that no one else could see it.
I was glad she was asleep. At her age she probably had very few perceptions about how health and illness worked, but it was a whole lot easier to heal somebody who couldn't consciously disbelieve that what you were doing was possible.
The bitter truth of the matter was that I had to believe it was possible, too, and I didn't want to. What I wanted and what was, however, were two very different things. Right through the core of me, I knew that cooling down an overheated little kid was only the bare edge of what I was capable of.
I let my hand fall off the girl's forehead. There was a little color in her cheeks now, her breathing somehow more steady and less shallow. She was going to be all right, though an IV drip to help get her fluids back up would probably be a good idea. From the outside, it looked as if I'd touched the girl's forehead as an assessment, then said, "I'll escort you out." I was the only one who knew better, and I was grateful for that. Headlines blaring Cop Turns Faith Healer! would not endear me to my boss.
The girl's mother, bright-eyed with tears, whispered her thanks. I led them through the crowd, radioing for an ambulance as we walked.
Watching them drive away half an hour later, I realized I could breathe more easily than I'd been able to in months. I rubbed the heel of my hand over my breastbone again, irritably, and went back to work.
I left at nine, which was cutting it way too close to expect to get back to the university by nine-thirty. The traffic gods smiled on me, though, and I slid my Mustang into a parking spot outside the gym with a whole two minutes to spare.
I have never been what I would call the athletic sort. Not because I'm uncoordinated, but because I was never very good at working with a team in high school. I hadn't improved at it since then, for that matter. The basketball coach had been endlessly frustrated by me. Alone I could shoot hoops till the cows came home, but put nine other people on a court with me and I got sullen and stupid and couldn't hold on to the ball.
So fencing, which I'd started shortly after wrassling a banshee to ground, was the first sport I'd ever really pursued. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, even with sweat leaking into my eyes and my own hot breath washing back at me against the mask.
Metal clashed against metal, a twitchy vibration running up my arm, even through the heavy canvas gloves. Block and retreat, block and retreat, lunge and attack. I blinked sweat away as I extended.
My épée scraped along the other blade and slid home, thumping my opponent solidly in the ribs. For a moment we both froze, equally startled. Then through the mesh of her mask, I saw her grin as she came back to a full stand. She pulled the mask off, tucking short damp hair behind her ears, and saluted me. I straightened and yanked my mask off. My shadow splashed against her white tunic, my hair a hedgehog of sagging points.
"We might just make a fencer of you yet, Joanne."
Panting and grinning, I tucked my mask under my arm, transferring my épée to my left hand, and offered Phoebe my right. She grabbed it in an old-fashioned warrior's handshake, wrapping her fingers around my forearm, the way she always shook hands. She was small and compact, like a Porsche, and had muscles where I didn't even have body parts. Most days she made me feel large and lumbering and slow.
Of course, on a bad day, Godzilla could make me feel large and lumbering and slow.
"That's my plan." I shook Phoebe's hand solidly before falling back a step, rubbing a thumb over my sternum. Phoebe's dark eyebrows knitted. It was very nearly her dark eyebrow knitting, but I was afraid to even think that too loudly, for fear she'd hear me and beat the tar out of me.
"Why do you do that?"
My hand dropped as if weighed down by a concrete brick, and I twisted it behind my back guiltily. "Do what?"
"You're the worst liar I've ever met. Every time somebody makes a point against you and every time a match ends, you rub your breastbone. How come?"
surgery a while ago." I took a too-deep breath, trying to will away the sensation of not getting enough air. "I guess it still bothers me."
"More like lung."
Phoebe's eyebrows went up. "You don't smoke, do you?"
"No." I hadn't snitched since January, when a steely eyed cab driver refused to give me a smoke because his wife of forty-eight years had died of emphysema. I could learn from other people's lessons. That was what I told myself.
Quitting smoking had nothing to do with the crushing sensation of being unable to breathe from having a sword stuffed through my lung. I told myself that, too. It turned out myself was a skeptical bitch and didn't believe me. Even so, I tried hard not to think about the truth: that the sword had been wielded by a Celtic god, and in a shadowland between life and death, a Native American trickster called Coyote offered me a choice between the two.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I chose a life and became a shaman. I felt that coil of energy bubble up again inside of me, and squelched it. There was no one around who needed healing right now. Nobody but myself, anyway, and I didn't deny I had a lot of self-healing to do.
Actually, I denied it all the time. Which was part of why I was learning to fence, instead of sitting somewhere quietly, as Coyote would like me to, focusing on my inner turmoil and getting it all sorted out. Inner turmoil could wait, as far as I was concerned. External turmoil seemed inclined to stick me with pointy things or otherwise try to do me in. Under those circumstances, I figured learning how to parry was a much better use of my time than fussing over things I'd rather let lie.
I rolled my shoulders, pushing the thoughts away. "It wasn't cancer. Sort of more hereditary. It's fine now. Just kind of bugs me sometimes. I think it's mostly mental." I knew it was mostly mental. I didn't even have a scar.
"Is that why you started coming here?" she wondered. "A lot of people find martial arts to be a great way to center themselves after they've had a life-changing experience."
I ducked my chin and let out a breathy laugh. "Something like that, yeah. Plus I could use the exercise."
"I thought cops were supposed to be in good shape."
I looked back up through my eyebrows. "Don't know many cops, do you? Speaking of which, I better hit the shower and get to work. Thanks for the lesson, Phoebe." I headed for the locker room, Phoebe taking the lead and holding the door for me.
"My pleasure. I like beating up on the big girls. Makes me feel all studly."
"You are all studly. And you're not that small."
"Compared to you I am."
"Compared to me Arnold Schwartznegger is small."
Phoebe laughed out loud. "You're not that big."
I grinned as I struggled out of my tunic. I was pretty sure it had a secret mission in life to strangle me as I undressed. "Nah. I lack the shoulders." Phoebe turned the showers on, drowning out anything else I might say. Once I got loose of the tunic, I followed her, standing to the side while the pins-and-needles water pelted from cold to too hot.
The beauty of university showers is that they never run out of hot water. I stood there, leaning my forehead against the wall, until my skin turned boiled lobster-red. Phoebe turned her shower off with a squeak of faucets, and in the fashion of community showers everywhere, the water in mine got significantly hotter. Turning it down didn't help. That was the flip side of never running out of hot water: the only way I'd ever found to keep a public shower from being too hot was to run more than one at a time. "Ow. Turn that back on, would you?"
"Sorry." The faucets squeaked again and after a few seconds my shower faded back to a bearable heat. Water lapped over the top of my feet, and I pushed away from the wall with another groan, listening to Phoebe slosh to the drying area.