The Grey Edge: Chapter Six

Ten Years Ago.
‘I need help,’ Donald whispered. ‘I need help.’ He turned away from the window that overlooked the school’s playground, and walked back into the office. ‘Can I please use the phone?’ he asked the secretary.
‘Of course,’ she said, spinning the blocky black phone towards him. ‘Dial seven to get out.’ She picked up her empty coffee cup, and walked from the office, giving Maggie one last look.
Maggie was still sitting on the bench, one arm still wrapped around her legs, the borrowed, over-sized jumper hiding her from the world. An untouched glass of water sat on a small table beside her, and she still refused to look at him.
He pulled his wallet from his pocket, and pulled out the plain-looking business card. The one given to him by a man proclaiming himself to be a god. The phone number for angels.
He looked across to Maggie one more time, the overwhelming urge just to pick her up, run, and move to a new town made his feet itch – but there was just no way, moving this time had stretched them almost to breaking point, finally emptied the rest of his savings, and left them with little choice but to stay. He forced himself to smile at Maggie – if the situation wasn’t salvageable, they would move, he could go into debt again, redraw on a loan, or get a new one, even one of those high-interest loans if it came to that, it would at least let them get out of town.
A deep breath calmed him. Salvage. Damage control. One last-ditch effort to save their move. It was a good suburb. It was a good school.
Too good to be ruined by one mistake.
Seven to get out, then the eight digits of the local phone number. God or not, magically-appearing cheeseburgers or not, half-magpie daughter or not, he still wasn’t sure that he believed he was calling angels.
A young woman’s voice. No official greeting. No choir singing. Probably a private residence. He was-
‘Ah, hello,’ he said, ‘I think I might have the wrong number.’
‘With where you’ve called, not likely,’ she said. ‘Where do you think you’re calling?’
‘I was given this card by, um…he said this was the number for…’
‘If you’re looking for the Agency, you’ve found them.’
‘Thank god,’ he said. ‘I mean, gods.’
‘That established,’ she said, ‘how can we help?’
‘My daughter, she’s…half-and-half, and there’s been an incident at her school. Please, I just need-’
‘Has anyone been killed?’
‘What? No!’
‘Sorry,’ the woman said, ‘but you have to understand, a lot of the time we do get called for clean-up. What’s happened?’
‘Her classmates saw her feathers, they know what she is, I don’t-’
‘Hey, hey,’ she said softly, ‘it’s ok. I’ll send Agent Darren down to talk with you. You’re…’ he heard some keyboard keys clicking, ‘at the primary school, right? Are you somewhere in the office?’
‘Yeah, I’m using their phone.’
‘He wants to know if the worried-looking one with brown hair?’
‘Turn around sir.’
He turned, and saw a man standing across the office.
‘I don’t-’ he said.
‘That good-looking hunk of angel is Darren, you can talk to him now, so I can take other calls.’
The line went dead in his ear, and he slowly put it down, looking from the phone, to Maggie, to the man.
The angel-apparent extended a hand. ‘Darren.’
‘Donald. Donald Hammond,’ he stammered.
Darren crossed the room, lifted his limp hand and shook it. ‘Nice to meet you, Don.’ He turned and looked at Maggie. ‘And she’s…?’
‘Magnolia,’ Maggie corrected. ‘It’s Magnolia when I’m in trouble, and I’m definitely in trouble.’
‘Oh, Maggie,’ he said, ‘you-re…’ he floundered for the right words.
Darren clapped him on the back. ‘How about we take this to the teacher’s lounge and talk about this?’
‘They’re having a staff meeting,’ he said, ‘that’s the only reason this hasn’t blown out out of proportion yet.’
Darren laughed. ‘Out of proportion is when I’m fighting half a dozen bunyips in full view of the highway, whatever this is, I’m sure we can deal with it.’
The world seemed to churn for a moment, blurring, and making his dizzy. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, they were no longer in the school office, but in a small, cozy restaurant.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Cool!’ Maggie said, her face brightening for the first time in a week.
‘Hungry?’ Darren asked.
‘But…we were told not to go anywhere.’
Darren tapped the side of his head. ‘I’m asking Katie to ring through and simply tell them you’re giving your statement to the authorities, which is true, but we’re doing it with food, because, Mister Hammond, you look ready to faint.’ He looked down to Maggie. ‘What kind of cake do you like, sweetie?’
A large plate appeared in front of Maggie, with a slice of cake nearly half the size of her head on it, a small scoop of vanilla ice-cream complimenting it.
‘Even cooler!’ Maggie said with a grin, reaching for the spoon.
‘She can’t eat all that!’
Darren shrugged. ‘I’m no expert on children, but I was kind of under the impression that their stomachs have basically infinite space in them?’
He slumped, not willing to take away the cake, and her smile. ‘Just don’t make yourself sick, ok, honey?’
She looked up, her mouth already ringed by chocolate. ‘Ok, daddy.’
Darren looked across to him. ‘Now what do you want?’
He looked at the man – angel – whatever he was. ‘The last time I saw someone do this, it was a god, and he made me hamburger. Cheeseburger. Can you really just replicate anything you want? Like on Star Trek?’
‘Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,’ the angel said, and a cup appeared in front of him. ‘It’s called requiring. It makes life…so much easier. Except when your girlfriend gets mad, says it’s cheating, and insists you cook from scratch, but that only happens sometimes, and she never complains when I require the room covered in rose petals. What do you want for lunch?’
‘Is there…a menu or something? I mean, I-’
‘Anything you can imagine, and it costs you what it does me: Nothing.’
‘A steak?’
‘Sounds good, I’ll have one too.’
Two plates of steak and chips appeared, smothered in what smelt like a peppery sauce. ‘Dig in,’ the angel said.
Maggie burped, and before he had a chance to admonish her, the angel placed a glass of soft drink in front of her. ‘Don’t rush yourself,’ he said, ‘that cake’s got to last the whole explanation, otherwise I might have to require you a second piece, and that might make your dad angry at me.’
‘Where do I start?’ he asked.
‘She’s half-magpie, right? Her mother’s the warden? The queen?’
He nodded.
‘Does this have anything to do with her?’
‘She’s never even met Maggie,’ he said, ‘she left her egg on my doorstep, and it’s been just the two of us ever since.’
‘I like it that way,’ Maggie said, and he smiled.
‘All right,’ Darren said, ‘so what happened?’
‘I got into a fight,’ Maggie said. ‘Cause I’m a freak.’
‘Maggie, you aren’t a freak.’
‘Freak! Freak! Freak!’ she said, pounding her hand on the table. ‘Just cause you’re too afraid to say it, dad, doesn’t mean it’s not true! Freak, freak, freak!’
‘I’m not afraid to say it,’ he said, ‘I just don’t believe it, and I’d never say it because it isn’t true.’
‘Yeah, well, you aren’t everyone else,’ she said, stabbing the chocolate cake with the spoon. ‘You aren’t the kids at school.’
‘They’re wrong,’ he said.
Darren turned to Maggie. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘It was a fair fight,’ she said.
‘Maggie, Mrs Olson told me there were four of them.’
‘And I’m freak-strong,’ she said, poking at the straw of her drink, ‘so that makes it a fair fight, right?’
‘No, never,’ he said. ‘It’s not fair of them to gang up on you.’
‘I could lift your dad with one hand,’ Darren said, ‘but I still hate it when people gang up on me, because even if you’re stronger, there’s still more of them, and that means it’s never fair.’
‘They were calling me all the things I was,’ she said, staring at the table. ‘Making fun of my hair, my eyes, everything. I got pushed, they pushed back, and we started to fight. They were gonna take off my shirt and shove me into the boy’s toilets, but they, um…’
‘She has feathers growing on her back,’ he supplied as his daughter went quiet. ‘We do our best to clip them and keep them out of sight, make her wear a singlet so any little ones that sprout during the day are less noticeable, but they have an awful tendency to grow in response to, um, heightened emotional states.’
‘Like a bullying attack,’ Darren said. ‘Don’t worry, it’s perfectly common in kids her age, certain secondary traits becoming more prominent due to emotions, don’t worry, it’ll mostly stop when she hits puberty.’ He turned to Maggie. ‘They saw your feathers, then what happened?’
‘They really started to fight, like it was girly fighting until then, mostly, but they got really…They were starting to fight like me. I think they wanted to hurt me, not just tease me, cause they worked out that I really, really was a freak, not just my hair.’
‘What made them stop?’ Darren asked.
‘I hit one of the girls, and she didn’t get up.’
‘She hit her head on a wall,’ he said, having heard the story before, ‘she was taken to the hospital for observation. It was self-defense, angel, you’ve got to understand, she’s just a girl, and they started it.’
‘My name’s Darren,’ the angel said, ‘or “Agent” if you prefer, I sure as hell have done nothing to earn a halo. And I understand self-defense, so don’t worry, I’m backing you up on that angle. I mean, what, would this story be better if you were the one in the back of an ambulance, Maggie?’
‘I’m the freak, they’re just the normals.’
‘Nothing wrong with being a freak, some of my best friends are freaks.’
He looked down at his steak, and cut off a small corner. ‘So what are we going to do?’
‘You tell me, Don,’ Darren said as he lifted a chip. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘I only know how to react to a situation,’ he said, ‘I’m not used to making a decision.’
‘Sure you are,’ the angel said. ‘You’ve been doing pretty good so far.’
‘You don’t know me.’
‘You chose to raise a girl born from an egg, for better or worse, a halfbreed daughter when you know almost nothing about magic, or the world around you. You keep protecting her – well, I presume that’s what all the moves are for-’
‘I never told you.’
The angel tapped the side of his head. ‘I downloaded your file.’ He smiled. ‘And you chose to call me, another good decision. So tell me, what do you want to do?’
He looked to his daughter for a moment. ‘I’d…I’d…I’d like to stay,’ he said, ‘if that’s ok with you, Maggie?’ She nodded, then went back to her cake. He looked up to Darren. ‘I want to stay here, if that’s at all possible.’
Darren grinned. ‘I think we can manage that.’
‘But they saw her feathers.’
‘They’re also nine-year-olds, and bullies, reasonable people have no reason to believe what they say. That, and we’ve got more than a few facts on our side.’
‘Such as?’
‘That girl, at most, will have a concussion, though probably not, as I’ve been informed that children bounce. Though that could be an exaggeration. Your Maggie, on the other hand, has a broken arm.’
He dropped his fork, and turned to look down at his daughter. ‘What? Maggie? But you-’
‘It doesn’t hurt that much,’ she whispered.
‘How could you not tell me?’
‘Because I was in enough trouble already. And it doesn’t hurt that much. Really.’
He looked across at the angel. ‘Are you sure-’
‘X-ray vision, mate,’ Darren said. ‘Let’s go get that set.’
The world churned again, and he felt like a piece of laundry. The restaurant disappeared, and a bright, white hospital room appeared.
‘I’m not sure I could get used to that,’ he said. ‘It’s a…it’s different.’
‘You haven’t been shifted around before?’ Darren asked as he lifted Maggie onto the hospital bed.
‘Maggie’s mother, she could do something similar, but it was slower, it wasn’t like being beamed around.’ He looked around the room. ‘Are you sure we’re not going to run into that other little girl here?’
Darren laughed, then smiled. ‘I sincerely doubt it, this is a rather…private infirmary.’ He crossed the room, and pressed the intercom. ‘Addy, could you get in here?’
A small door at the back of the infirmary opened, and a tired-looking man in a dirty t-shirt and a lab coat walked in, a magazine hanging from his hand. ‘I thought you-’ he began, then looked to Maggie. ‘Shoulda told me we had visitors, sir, I would have cleaned up,’ he said, spreading his arms wide. His tired expression disappeared, and his clothes…suddenly became new, as clean and bright as the infirmary. ‘Medical Agent Addy, at your service,’ he said, a bottle of lollipops appearing in his hands. ‘Want one?’ He turned. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll have her fixed up-’
‘No, Addy,’ Darren said. ‘Just set the arm, with a cast.’
The bottle of lollipops appeared. ‘Do I look like a barbarian to you? I’m not going to let her leave here with a broken arm. A bit faerie or not, that’s going to hurt for weeks if-’
‘Just a cast, Adelaide, trust me, it’ll be better in the long run.’
‘Shit, you call me that, it must be serious,’ Addy said, then looked at Maggie. ‘Fuck, didn’t mean to swear in front of a kid. I mean shit. I mean. Aaaagh.’ The doctor pulled a lollipop from his pocket, stuck it in his own mouth, then began work on Maggie, an x-ray of her broken arm appearing in the light box on the wall.
Darren put a hand on his arm. ‘Come on, let Addy work, believe it or not, he knows what he’s doing.’
‘He’s…an ange- I mean, agent, like you?’
‘Yeah, except his specialty is being a doctor. Come on, we’ll go see Katie, I’m sure I’ve done something wrong that she needs to yell at me about, and I’ll tell you the plan.’
‘I never asked about the restaurant,’ he said as they walked down the short hall to a staircase. ‘Do you do that kind of thing often?’
‘The place is run by a friend of mine, I use it when I need to talk to civilians, the table we were sitting at? On permanent reserve for me, and I just slip him a couple of grand a week for the pleasure, and for the potential loss in business.’
‘Your petty cash must be pretty impressive.’
Darren lifted a hand and hundred-dollar notes rained from the room. ‘You could say that.’
‘Ow,’ Darren muttered.
‘Are you showing off again?’
‘Told you I was in trouble,’ the agent said as he looked up at the angry young woman who had hit him with a rolled-up newspaper. ‘Hello darling, miss me?’
She hit him with the newspaper again. ‘Stop boasting, it really doesn’t do any good. Are you going to clean that up?’
Darren sighed. ‘If you’d let me turn some of the cleaning-’
She hit him a third time as they finished ascending the stairs. ‘No, because you keep writing report notes on scraps of paper and pizza boxes, I turn the macros back on, and you get even further behind on paperwork. I’m sick of getting yelled at by HQ, you know what Ryan’s like when he’s pissed.’
‘That man seriously needs to get laid.’
‘You don’t start behaving, and I will give you to him. Gift wrapped, and in handcuffs.’ She sighed, then seemed to notice him for the first time. ‘I assume you’re the voice on the end of the line? Did this unfortunately handsome idiot help you?’
He nodded. ‘He’s got a plan, and Maggie’s in the infirmary getting a cast on her arm.’
Katie whirled back around to look at Darren. ‘Why a cast, Darren?’
‘Because it will look better when we threaten to sue, now if you could please forgo hitting me again, I need to call Clarke, he should know some people suited for this.’
‘Fine. I’ll go check on the girl, and make sure Addy doesn’t get distracted giving a string theory lecture again.’
She swept past them, thundering down the stairs.
Darren sighed happily. ‘Gods, I love that woman.’
‘Is she-?’ he began.
‘Nah, she’s human, like you. I don’t hold it against her though.’
‘We’re going to sue them?’ he asked as they walked across the large, open room. Half a dozen desks sat empty while a dozen televisions showed a dozen different channels, all on mute. Darren sat the desk with his nameplate, another chair appearing as if…well, by, magic.
‘No,’ Darren said, digging into a nearly-empty packet of chips. ‘We’re going to threaten to sue. Agent Clarke, he’s kind of the…sleazy PR guy for south-east Queensland, has more than a few lawyer contacts, and since part of his job is keeping this stuff out of the media, we threaten with lawyers, brandish your Maggie’s new cast, possibly get a few other kids to step forward and confirm what little terrors those micro-bitches are, and boom, she can go back to school, you can go back to work, and you get a second chance.’
‘Will that work?’
‘It’s worked before. This is what we do, Don.’
‘Help out losers who can’t handle their own problems?’
‘Sometimes,’ Darren said, turning on his computer monitor, ‘seriously though, if you hadn’t called me, this would have gone through normal channels, and if we hadn’t caught it, it might even have caught some media attention, which is not the kind of thing we like.’
‘Because magic has to be kept a secret?’
‘Hey, humans decided that, we didn’t. We don’t keep magic a secret from anyone, but it being public knowledge on a world-wide scale…wouldn’t be good for anyone, it isn’t the kind of world that will accept that anymore. So yeah, we keep up the masquerade, and sometimes that means threatening to sue.’
‘Have I thanked you yet?’
‘No, but that’s ok, I haven’t done anything yet.’
‘You’ve done more than you can imagine. I’ve…never had any help with Maggie before. Everything I know about the world that Maggie’s mother didn’t tell me was usually third-hand, or came from the internet, and I’ve learned an embarrassingly large number of incorrect facts trying to figure out things that way. I mean, I’ve never wanted her to be a part of this life, but I’ve never even known enough to help her.’
The agent smiled. ‘Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Never fear, the Agency is here. Huh. She usually-’
‘I can’t hit you from across the room,’ Katie said as she walked up the stairs. ‘You’re the magic one.’ She crossed the room, frowned slightly at the lack of a chair, then sat in Darren’s lap. ‘You’ve got a pretty cool kid there, Mister Hammond. I’d like to offer to babysit.’
‘So you will have my kids!’ Darren said with a grin as he hugged her from behind. ‘We shall have seventeen strong, healthy babies, all of them named Chester!’
Katie smiled, but twisted around to kiss him. ‘Grow up a bit first, and I’ll think about it.’
‘So why do you want to babysit, if not for practice to be the best mother to our seventeen Chesters?’
Katie turned away from her angel. ‘I might answer the phones, Mister Hammond, but I’m also a black belt in karate, I’d like to train her. She could come here in the afternoons after school, instead of the out-of-hours care, and you can pick her up after work.’
‘She gets into enough fights already,’ he said without thinking, then hung his head and stared at the floor. ‘That came out badly.’
‘It won’t change the number of fights she gets into,’ Katie said as she slid of Darren’s lap, and into a another magically-appearing chair. ‘But it might change how she handles them. She…hurt another girl today, not because she meant to, but because she’s got a powerful little body and no idea how to use it. She’s got a lot of strength, but no control. If she learns what to do, when, she’ll not only have an outlet for her frustration, but she could get out of fight by just taking defensive actions, or just doing enough to show she’s in control. I think it would be good for her, but you’re her father, it’s up to you.’
‘I’ll ask Maggie about it,’ he said, ‘if she likes the idea, then, yes, you can teach her.’
‘See why I love her?’ Darren asked.
Katie stood. ‘Come on, Addy should be finished with her by now.’
‘Wings or not,’ he said, ‘you really are angels of mercy. I don’t know what I would have done today without your help.’
‘Aw shucks,’ Darren said, ‘weren’t nothing.’
Katie sighed, then hit the agent with the newspaper again.