Maggie jogged the short distance from her sister’s house to her mother, Toni Parker two blocks down Pressler. None of the Parker women had moved very far apart.
Her mother’s large three-story gray stucco home spread across two lots and had a porch offset by wide pillars. There was a broad array of lawn ornaments from a large silver gazing ball resting among ferns to two large metal cutouts of dragons standing over the winter pansies and faeries tucked under the azalea bushes. The collection had taken over most of the front yard. Her mother had perfected the art of decorating with tchochkes.
The low thumping sound of steady drum beats was coming from the backyard and a familiar smell wafted toward Maggie as she took the broad, painted steps two at a time and went through the front door. It was never locked. Toni Parker had an open door policy, despite Maggie’s occasional protest. “That had better be patchouli,” Maggie whispered as she shook her head and walked down the center hallway that ran the entire length of the house, and out the back door.
Grackles came to rest on the tall street light on the edge of the property, letting out loud squawks as they settled their dark black feathered wings. Bernie slipped down the street and glanced up at the birds as he made a perfect O with his mouth, blowing out a bubble that floated up to the birds and popped as it reached them.
The birds let out another loud chorus of screeches and took off, noisily taking flight. At the last moment, they split into three groups, heading off in different directions. Three of them flew to the large crepe myrtle in the backyard and landed neatly on branches near the gathering seated on lawn chairs.
The Huldu gnome watched until he was sure the birds were all safely on their way. “Want something done right, do it yourself.” His hand had a thin wound along the back, still oozing a trace of blood.
He took another look around to make sure he was alone and released enough bubbles to cover his stout, little body as he turned into a yellow tabby cat and hurried to the wooden fence, easily scrambling to the top of the gate and dropping into the backyard. Sharp barking warned the cat of an approaching menace.
“Oscar! Come here, boy.” Toni yelled to the spotted pointer circling the cat, who hissed and arched his back as he quickly ran toward a circle of women sitting around different-sized drums. Toni pulled Oscar closer even as he let out a low growl, staring at the cat. “That’s enough, this is a safe zone for all creatures.”
Maggie crossed the large backyard, and came to stand by her mother, hands on her hips. “Mom, a safe zone for what? You’re in a backyard in Central Austin. It’s a very large safe zone.”
“This must be your daughter!” An older woman with long silver hair piped up, smiling broadly at Toni. Maggie’s forehead wrinkled as she looked at the woman, a newcomer to the backyard drumming circles that would spontaneously appear and sometimes last for days.
“You look just like your mother.”
Maggie tensed, waiting for it.
“No, she doesn’t. She looks like her father. Her sister favors me.”
Toni tilted her head to one side, smiling up at her daughter. “It’s a good thing. I see a piece of your dad every time I look at you.”
She took a closer look around the yard. “Everyone looks a little too chill, Mom. We’ve talked about this…”
“Relax, it’s just a little sage burning. I told you, we’re on the straight and narrow since you busted us.”
“Narrow-ish. Hi Maggie.”
“Hi Mrs. Fletcher, nice to see you again.”
“Larry still asks about you.”
Maggie’s mother smiled up at her, still holding onto Oscar. “Lucy, give my daughter a break. That was just a few dates and it was months ago. Sit down, Maggie, tell me what’s up. You’re doing that Wonder Woman pose. I sense something is afoot.” Toni rubbed her hands together, delighted.
“Can I talk to you inside?” Maggie raised her eyebrows, not moving from where she stood, hoping her mother would relent. She already knew the answer and let out a resigned sigh.
“What’s wrong with here? Half the people don’t hear well anyway.” Her mother snorted and waved her hand. “The others are deep into their drumming. Come on, sit down. Tell me what exciting thing has happened.” Toni grabbed her hand and gave it a gentle tug as the cat let out a soft purr and stretched out on the grass.
“What started the drumming session this time?”
“Kathleen said there was a disturbance in the force. Have you met, yet? This is my daughter, Maggie Parker.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you.” The wrinkles lining Kathleen’s face grew even deeper as she smiled.
“Kathleen’s lived in the neighborhood for as long as anyone can remember.”
“I’m an old timer.” She held up her hand and held it steady in the cold air. “Felt the tremor earlier this morning. Energy just shot through the neighborhood.”
Maggie felt that same familiar tingle across the back of her neck and a tightness in her chest. “What do you mean by energy?”
The cat let out a yowl and pulled away from the woman stroking its neck. “Oh, poor tabby, you’re injured!” The others were distracted as Toni got up to go inside the house. The old woman leaned in and grasped Maggie’s hand tightly, pulling her down into a crouch next to her as she whispered, “Everything is connected in this world, keep that in mind.”
“Okay… not sure what to do with that.”
“The birds, the trees, and everything in between, always talking to each other, sending messages.” The woman let out a laugh, but the smile dropped from her face momentarily. “You were visited by a Huldu, am I right? A short little man with attitude?”
Maggie sat back on her heels as her eyes grew wide. She stared at the ordinary looking woman. “How do you… What do you…”
“Clever little creatures, really, even if they see themselves as the caretakers of the planet. I suppose they are, after a fashion.”
“How do you know anything about this?”
“That’s an easy answer that’s quite complicated. I’m aware of the magic that’s all around us. Happened to me years ago. They call it waking up when a human being remembers how to create using magic.”
Maggie let out a frustrated breath, and caught herself. If she could listen to what Kathleen was saying in between the crazy, maybe she could find out something useful to track the old man and the compass. “What’s a who-who?”
“That’s a whole other topic. I’m talking about a Huldu. A very ancient people, well, gnomes really. They live forever, well over a thousand years. Not sure I know how long they last beyond the stories I’ve heard.”
Maggie was used to interrogations that didn’t follow a straight line by people who dressed up the facts. This was going to be no different. “What did you call them, caretakers?”
“Yes, they make sure everything is running as it should from behind the scenes. A whole system of rules about the world and magic. Although their cousins, the Kashgar would probably point out that nothing is running correctly. I mean, after all here we all sit, not going anywhere.”
“You’re not making any sense. Can we get back to what’s a Huldu?” She kept her voice low and steady, trying to keep Kathleen on track as if they were in a small room at the precinct.
“I believe I told you. It’s a gnome, a magical being.The hired help, in a way. ” Maggie shook her head. “But that’s obvious, and what’s not magical? I mean, after all, everything is connected. Keep that in mind. It’ll serve you well.”
Toni came back with a salve for the cat’s neck. Her thick auburn hair was piled on top of her head, held precariously in place by a silver clip.
She went over and scooped up the cat easily with one hand, pulling it close and sat back down in her chair. The cat settled into her lap, looking up at Maggie as Toni tended to its wound. “I can see you’re confused.”
“Not confused, just not high.”
Toni arched an eyebrow even as she smiled at her daughter. “You need a boyfriend or at least get laid once in a while. Are you taking care of…”
“Mom!” Maggie cleared her throat, even as the drumming paused for a moment and felt her face getting warm. “Said that a little louder than I intended.”
“Let me make this easier for my practical daughter.” She smiled at Maggie, gently rubbing the cat’s fur. “Kathleen is a sage, a keeper of old knowledge, right?” Kathleen smiled at Maggie’s mother as the cat squirmed in her lap, trying to get away. “Not quite done, kitty. Hang in there.” Toni looked up even as she applied the last dab of ointment.
The old sage studied Maggie’s face as if she was looking for something. “Hmmm, I thought for sure something momentous had happened this morning. Maybe I was wrong. No awakening?”
“Nothing beyond realizing mixing Trix and Cocoa Puffs together was a genius breakfast move.”
Toni let out a laugh. “See? Just like your Dad… and your Poppy, I might add. Marjorie, let me help you, honey. That’s too much fat wood.” Toni got up, the cat still held firmly in her arms and crossed the yard. The cat twisted around till it could look over Toni’s shoulder, staring at Kathleen.
Kathleen watched Toni go, holding up a finger. “Wait just a moment.” When Toni was further away, she turned back, pulling her purse into her lap
“Let me help you, just this once. It’s breaking a Huldu rule, but who cares? I’m not a Huldu.” Kathleen reached into the cloth purse and pulled out a clear ball that fit neatly into the middle of her palm. Inside of it was a small, perfectly formed tree. “Here, this is yours now.” Kathleen didn’t wait for a response and took the ball, pressing it into Maggie’s hand.
Maggie held it up closer to examine the tree, marveling at the craftsmanship, just as a tiny black bird flew from the branches, circled the tree and disappeared back into its depths, rustling the leaves.
She startled and stared harder at the ball. “Was that a grackle?”
“Not to worry, none of that is real. It’s like a Huldu picture, but we can create them out of what we know. I made this one to remind me of the Huldu’s first rule. Rule number one is everything is connected, therefore everything is precious. Necessary tenet if you’re transporting so many living things on this giant ship.”
Maggie stared at the ball, trying to see how it was possible. “Is this a tiny computer? Look how small they can make them now.”
Kathleen let out a sigh. “Nothing, huh? Okay, I tried. You’re a tough case. Still, I would have sworn you’d crack open. Nothing strange happen at all today?”
Maggie hesitated but not for long. She needed information and there weren’t many places to go ask someone about a flying compass and a little old man who disappeared into thin air.
“Someone broke into my garage this morning.” She cleared her throat. “A little old man. He looked homeless to me.”
“Another break in?” Toni had walked back over and stood next to her daughter, rubbing her shoulder. “What were they after?”
The cat yowled loudly and batted at Maggie’s arm, its claws out. Maggie stayed just out of range and searched for the right words. “He was going through Poppy’s old metal tool box and was about to steal that strange wooden box. You remember it, Mom? Had the different elements on it, one on each side.”
“Another break in to that old garage. This is usually such a safe street,” said Toni.
The smile had dropped from Kathleen’s face and she sat up straighter. “What happened to the box? Do you still have it?”
“I have the box, but not what was in it. The thing opened up, all on its own and there was a strange compass inside with three arms. The little man got all excited when one of the arms pointed at me, like it wasn’t pointing north but straight at me.”
“Then what happened…” The old woman said the words in measured tones, breathing harder.
“Then, uh, the damndest thing. The compass grew wings and flew for a moment before landing in my hand.”
Toni looked at her daughter as the cat slipped from her hands and ran to sit a little closer to Maggie. “I knew there were a few of my special cookies missing.”
“I thought you told me you were reformed.”
“I am, there’s no more smoking in the backyard. Bad for your lungs, anyway. How long ago did you eat one?”
“I haven’t been in your stash, Mom, and let’s go back to not wanting me to know anything.”
Kathleen stood up and grabbed Maggie’s hand again, squeezing it. “Where is the compass now?”
“The little guy took it.”
“An old man got one over on you?”
“Thanks, Mom, and yes, he did despite me holding a gun. Strangest thing. One moment he was there and the next he was gone.”
“That’s not necessarily good news,” said Kathleen, sharply taking in air. “You can’t be sure it wasn’t a Kashgar. That would put them one step closer to finding the others and the parts they need to fix the machine.”
“That’s a part to a machine?” Maggie’s phone started ringing.
“No, it’s a compass. Points you in the right direction. There’s so much to tell you.”
“Well, it’ll have to wait. Work calls.”
The cat slipped away from the crowd and out the way it had come, leaping over the fence. Moments later, bubbles rose into the air, popping as they floated away.
“It’s your day off.”
“Tell that to the bad guys. One of my old cases got a hit that can’t wait.”
“Take some coffee with you. It’s still hot and you function better with a little caffeine.”
“Mom, I’m heading into work. Not a good time for your idea of coffee.”
“It’s safe, I swear!”
“Well…” Mrs. Fletcher chimed in, “I put a few herbs in it. Mostly medicinal.”
“Mostly… perfect. I’ll stop at the Wag-A-Bag.”