2. Shepard

Cassandra materialized on a busy street. By her reckoning, a few blocks away from the bar where she was to meet Shepard. People kept walking by, as if she hadn’t popped up out of nowhere. She’d seen this happen countless times and still marveled every single time.

Funny thing, the human mind. It can reject anything that defies mortal reason. The Unseen World wasn’t exactly hidden from humans. Weird shit happened in plain view of ordinary humans all the time. To be more precise, people noticed, freaked out for a split second then the lizard brain kicked in. The impossible thing they’d seen had never happened at all. A silly trick of the mind.

It was sort of like playing possum, this neat little psychological mechanism. Chances are that’s what was keeping humans safe from the things that should remain unseen.

Cassandra had teleported unto the middle a crowded street. No one noticed, save for a baby in a blue carriage. The little one regarded her with wide-eyed astonishment then broke out into a toothless grin. She tossed the little cutie a smile as mother and child vanished into the spring break throng.

Babies were an exception, she’d long learned. Babies and the very old.  

It was the height of spring, but the heat was sweltering as if it was mid-summer. Cassandra was dehydrated and daunted by Florida’s oppressive humidity. She stifled the urge to make a beeline for the waters of Coquina Beach. The nearby ocean was calling. The smell of salt, the rhythmic sound of waves tugging at the shoreline made her blood leap and long for the gravid wet.

The Beach Buggy had a sagging thatch roof and weather-worn wooden walls. A real hole-in-the-wall kind of dive, it was nearly empty inside. In one corner, some drunk huddled close to the wall, head down on the counter. The bartender was an unfriendly sort with a bushy beard and comically red nose.

He tossed Cassandra a suspicious look. “You got ID?”

“Don’t need it,” she answered. “I’m not here to drink.”

The guy’s thumb stuck out, pointing to the sign above the counter.

Paying Customers Only.

Cassandra shot the irksome man a withering look, but he didn’t budge, so she acquiesced.  

“Shepard, right?” She tilted her head at a man sitting at the other end of the bar nursing a single shot of something brownish. “Why don’t we talk outside?”

He grunted, finished his shot in a single gulp, and obliged.

In the rank and refuse-littered back alley, Shepard stood with his back to the piss stained wall. He was a stocky kind of guy. Dark. Not quite as dark as Cassandra, though. He exuded a barely civilized kind of streetwise appeal. She could tell he wasn’t human. Something dangerous, definitely. Something kinda animal.

He didn’t say anything at first, just stood there staring at her expectantly.

“Oh,” she realized after a moment. “Here.”

She handed over a thick roll of twenties bound together by a rubber band. He pocketed her offering. He didn’t bother to count it, she noted. He handed her a piece of paper. There was a name and address scrawled there.

“Susumu Takano?” The name rolled awkwardly off her tongue.

“That’s the man you need to see.”

“He has the book I’m looking for?” She pressed.

“Dunno. Don’t care,” Shepard shook his head. “You seem to be looking for trouble. Keep going like this, you’re gonna find it.”

She laughed. “Is that supposed to scare me?”

“It should,” the disagreeable man growled. His voice hardened as he turned to walk away. “I’m not sure how you got my number in the first place but don’t ever come looking for me again.”

The book in question was what one might call an alternative history of the world. The book contained various secrets of things that went bump in the night. One of those secrets was the possible whereabouts of a certain witch.  

Cassandra stuck the paper into her back pocket. She studied Shepard’s retreating back. He might be right. It might be stupid and reckless to keep looking for someone who didn’t want to be found. At this point, though, she damned well didn’t care. Her little trip to the Arctic had been a bust. This was the only lead left.

That woman had to be out there somewhere, the one with all the answers. The one who could do what even Cassandra didn’t have the power to do. The one who could make her broken mother whole again.

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