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There was a loud crack of wood splintering followed by the sound of chickens squawking in the backyard.
“What the hell?” Maggie Parker stood suddenly upright, holding very still to try and catch any more sounds. Her knee banged against the tall, wooden dresser, and she let out a short breath of air, choking back a grunt of pain. Nothing.
No, wait, there’s one. A loud clang, like something just got knocked to the cement floor of the garage out back.
She looked out the window, down in the direction of the small garage at the back of her yard. Someone darted past the window followed by a streak of gold light. “Thiiiiiink…” She let the word out slowly, sucking in her bottom lip even as her reflexes took over. A solid year as a robbery detective will do that to a body.
Maggie easily dove across her bed and landed on her feet, sliding open the drawer in the nightstand. She scooped up her nine-millimeter service weapon and ran for the stairs in one fluid motion. The toe of her running shoe caught on the cracked wooden tread, third from the bottom but she caught herself and leapt down the last few, already building up speed. “Really have to fix that someday,” she mumbled as her hand took the corner, moving faster.
Out the back door she went, across the small patch of grass, turned yellow in what passed for winter in Austin, Texas, cold air filling her lungs. She jogged past the chicken coop, only the two white feathery Brahma raised their heads to look at her before going back to pecking at the ground. The eight other chickens were warmly nesting in the coop.
In a matter of moments, she was in the side door of the garage, quickly taking note of the jimmied lock. Her trained eye told her it was done by someone with a little skill.
She raised her gun, placing herself by the door in the confined quarters. “Whoever you are, you’re not going anywhere. Picked the wrong house, dude.” The metal shelves jostled as a rubber mallet and pliers slid off and hit the hard concrete. She raised her gun, keeping her breathing even. “Let’s not let this get any more complicated. Do the right thing and come up with your hands raised over your head, fingers spread.”
“Son of a centaur.” It was a deep, rumbling voice, clearly frustrated. Sounded like he smoked way too many cigarettes. He was muttering something else, but Maggie couldn’t make out the words.
A strong odor of damp earth hit her in the face as the man came into the center of the room, his arms by his side. He was no more than five feet with long gray hair and baggy blue pants covered in dirt, held up by striped suspenders over a green wool sweater. Maggie relaxed, just a little.
She arched an eyebrow, even as she looked to make sure he didn’t have an accomplice. “Were you looking for a warm place to hang out? This isn’t a shelter, but I can help you find a place.”
The slight old man huffed in anger and balled his hands into fists. “That again! These are decent enough clothes.” He patted the pockets of his pants, releasing another wave of the mossy smell. “I’m not homeless, Peabrain.”
Maggie cocked her head to the side, still holding up her gun. “Okay, name calling, very nice. Well, which one of us is about to get arrested, asshole?”
“Asshole is just a nickname. My friends call me Bernie.” He spat the words out, his face flushed. “You can keep calling me asshole.”
“Bernie, you’re an odd combo for a criminal. You broke in here like you’ve done this before, but you’ve been banging around like you left your glasses somewhere.”
He cut her off, waving his arms. “I have never needed glasses! Slipped on that grease stain.” He looked back over his shoulder and back at her. “Place needs a good straightening up, if you ask me.”
“No one is asking and from the looks of things, you caused most of the mess.” Maggie lowered her gun, letting out a deep breath. “Look, Bernie, I’m gonna need an explanation.” She waved her hand at the mess in the garage.
“Your training, I suppose,” he muttered, taking a small step to his right.
Maggie furrowed her brow, tucking a strand of brown hair behind an ear. “Do we know each other?” Her shoulders dropped a minute amount. “Oh geez, are you one of my mother’s friends? Was she doing another white lady sweat lodge? Are you high on something?” She shook her head. “That collection of people she has in her house, no offense.”
“None taken, I’m not one of them,” he grumbled. He took another small step to the right, sliding an old green metal tool box with his foot. Half of the tools were already spilled out onto the floor.
Maggie looked at the toolbox and up at Bernie. That was the clang she had heard earlier.
“What the hell are you doing with Poppy’s toolbox? You break in here to steal some old tools?” An ache centered in her chest. The tools were the only thing her grandfather had left her in his will last year. She had put the box on a shelf and left them there. It was still too painful to look through them. But it didn’t mean someone could take them. “Answer the question. What do you want with the tools?”
Maggie lifted her gun back up, the hair on her arms starting to stand up and a familiar tingle spreading along the back of her neck. She got it every time something was about to go down. The muscles across her back tensed.
Bernie peered at her, squinting his eyes like he was sizing her up. He shrugged and turned, picking the metal box up and dumping out the contents.
“Hey! That’s all I have left from my grandfather.” Maggie felt a flush of anger and ran across the room, dropping to one knee. She was still holding up her gun even as she pushed the tools out of the small man’s reach. But he was already ignoring everything except the small wooden puzzle box that was resting lightly in the palm of his hand. A satisfied grin broke out across his face.
“Not a chance!” Maggie shouted.
He had picked Maggie’s favorite from the tool box. A useless wooden box she played with as a child but was never able to open. It was decorated on every side with a different element of wind, fire, water or earth. Bernie looked all around and waved his arm as he made an attempt at an end run around the detective, barreling at her. She put out her foot to trip him up, combining it with an elbow to his midsection.
“Oof!” He blew out sharply, losing his grip on the box as it dropped toward the floor. “No, not this time!” he called out.
They both reached up for the box at the same time, fumbling it through their fingers as it continued to tumble off course, headed for a puddle of water where rainwater had seeped inside the garage. The box landed on its side, making a small splash as Bernie gasped, his eyes growing wider. His voice came out in a whisper. “Peabrain, what have you done?”
“What?” Maggie looked back and forth quickly between Bernie and the box, which was already vibrating, the shaking growing more violent by the second. Maggie didn’t hesitate.
She scooped it up, cradling it in her hands and felt the vibrations from it travel up her arms, chattering her teeth. A wave of energy passed through her that felt exactly like the last time she rode a roller coaster and flipped upside down, twisting around a steep curve.
“How is this possible?” Her voice had a hum to it as if her entire chest were vibrating. But just as suddenly, it stopped, and the stillness hung in the air. She swallowed hard and realized she was still gripping her gun in her other hand. “Hope you don’t have plans, Bernie because I’m going to be asking you questions for a while.” Maggie never took her eyes off the box. A shudder went down her spine.
Bernie stood frozen right where he was, his mouth hanging open as one by one, different parts of the small box in Maggie’s hand shifted and pieces unfolded like petals, revealing an inner chamber. Inside was a small brass compass with four black needles pointing in different directions covered with a clear glass face. One of the needles was pointing directly at Maggie.
“The compass, it was yours all along,” gasped Bernie, staring at Maggie. “You’re the new elemental.” The compass began to make a whirring noise, the needles spinning as the tiny cogs behind it spun, faster and faster. The round knob on the top of the compass popped open, pushing it up at an angle and small, metallic wings spread out to the sides, fluttering as the compass took flight.
Maggie watched the wings movement. “I’m pretty sure this is not possible,” she whispered, as the intricate piece of machinery hovered in front of her face. She put her hand up closer to it and it dropped back into her palm, the wings folding up as the knob popped back into place. She heard Bernie swear under his breath. “Leo swore it couldn’t be you.” Bernie put out his hand to touch the compass, laying inert in the center of the open box, still in Maggie’s hand.
“Back off!” Maggie recovered herself, remembering why she was standing in her garage on her morning off. She kept out her hand that held the compass, not sure what to do but made sure her other hand was pointing her weapon at Bernie.
“You’re going to need to put those hands up, Bernie. I haven’t forgotten that you broke in here. You’re coming downtown with me unless you can give me a really good reason for why you know the first thing about me and how that connects to breaking into my garage and what you want with Poppy’s tools.”
“Not the tools…” Bernie wiggled his fingers above his head, muttering the same garbled words Maggie had heard before but she still couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“What are you…”
Large, clear bubbles floated in a cluster near the ceiling of the small, cinder block garage caught her attention. Maggie frowned but didn’t have time to do anything more than that.
An old ball peen hammer rose off the floor from the pile of tools and landed neatly in Bernie’s open hand.
Maggie felt another shudder go down her spine but there was no time to make sense out of any of it. “Have to stop eating brownies from Mom. I told her that wasn’t cool after the last time.”
Bernie’s arm was already pulled back, launching the hammer in the direction of Maggie’s head, leaning into the pitch. She ducked just as the hammer breezed past her head, tucking her chin, just for a moment. “Okay, now we’re done playing. Attacking an officer gets you that ride downtown.”
Maggie’s head was only tilted down for a second but when she looked up Bernie was gone, and so was the compass. “Not a chance he got past me.” She ran across the short divide, ducking behind the metal shelves but there was no sign of him. “How the hell did he get past me?”
A large moth fluttered near her head, and she swatted at it, her head still working on a swivel.
“Ow, did that thing just bite me?” She pulled in her hand and saw two small red marks. “I just got hit by a baby mothra.” She looked back up. “What a weird day.” Out in the yard the chickens were all out of the coop, running along the fence squawking. Maggie ran to the fence, easily jumping up onto the wooden cross bar to get a better look into her neighbor’s yard. No sign of Bernie anywhere.
She ran down the side of the Caribbean-blue bungalow and out to Pressler Street, but it was sleepy this time of day. A man in a green puffy coat with the hood pulled down against the wind, hurried along the street, not bothering to look back at Maggie. A small black Labrador looked up from a front yard two doors down and started barking at Maggie till she darted back the way she came. “Damn, where could that old man have gone?”
The chickens continued to race back and forth as the moth took to higher ground, flying closer to the top of the old pecan tree. It landed in the crook of the old tree where it was hidden from view, just as a large bubble popped next to it, releasing the small compass. The moth settled on top of it, biding its time.
Maggie’s brow furrowed as she jumped down from the fence, looking for any further signs of trouble. A white and black Dorking hen nipped at the wire fencing surrounding the coop, clucking loudly. “Calm down Gertie. The trouble has already passed.” She let out a sigh, one hand on her hip. “Best alarm system there is in my own backyard and that asshole got in and got out without a peep from anyone of you. Damn, what the hell just happened?” She rubbed the marks on her wrist.
“Did a compass really fly?”