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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 30)

Matt watched Mrs. Flowers go over Sheriff Mossberg's badge, holding it lightly in one hand and running her fingers over it with the other.

The badge came from Rebecca, Sheriff Mossberg's niece. It had seemed entirely a coincidence when Matt had almost run into her earlier that day. Then he'd noticed that she was wearing a man's shirt as a dress. The shirt had been familiar – a Ridgemont sheriff's shirt.

Then he had seen the badge still attached to it. You could say a lot of things about Sheriff Mossberg, but you couldn't imagine him losing his badge. Matt had forgotten all sense of gallantry and snatched at the little metal shield before Rebecca could stop him. He'd had a sick feeling in his stomach then, and it had only gotten worse since. Mrs. Flowers's expression was doing nothing to comfort him.

"It wasn't in direct contact with his skin," she said softly, "so the images I get are hazy. But oh, my dear Matt" – she lifted shadowed eyes to his – "I am afraid." She shivered, sitting at her kitchen table chair, where two mugs of hot spiced milk sat untouched.

Matt had to clear his throat and touch the scalding milk to his lips. "You think we need to go out to look."

"We must," said Mrs. Flowers. She shook her head, with its soft, wispy white curls, sadly. "Dear Ma ma is most insistent, and I can feel it too; a great disturbance in this artifact."

Matt felt the faintest shade of pride tingeing his fear for having secured the "artifact" – and then he thought, yeah, robbing badges from the shirts of twelve-year-old girls is really something to be proud of.

Mrs. Flowers's voice came from the kitchen. "You'd best put on several shirts and sweaters as well as a pair of these." She emerged sideways through the kitchen door, holding several long coats, apparently from the closet in front of the kitchen door, and several pairs of gardening gloves.

Matt jumped up to help her with the armfuls of coats and then went into a coughing fit as the smell of mothballs and of – something else, something spicy – surrounded him.

"Why do – I feel – like Christmas?" he said, forced to cough between each few words.

"Oh, now that would be Great-Aunt Morwen's clove preservation recipe," Mrs. Flowers replied. "Some of these coats are from Mother's time."

Matt believed her. "But it's still warm out. Why should we wear coats at all?"

"For protection, dear Matt, for protection! These clothes have spells woven into the material to safeguard us from evil."

"Even the gardening gloves?" Matt asked doubtfully.

"Even the gloves," Mrs. Flowers said firmly. She paused and then said in a quiet voice, "And we'd better gather some flashlights, Matt dear, because this is something we're going to have to do in the darkness."

"You're kidding!"

"No, sadly, I am not. And we should get some rope to tie ourselves together. Under no circumstances must we enter the thicket of the Old Wood tonight."

An hour later, Matt was still thinking. He hadn't had any appetite for Mrs. Flowers's hearty Braised Eggplant au Fromage dinner, and the wheels in his brain just wouldn't stop turning.

I wonder if this is how Elena feels, he thought, when she's putting together Plans A, B, and C. I wonder if she ever feels this stupid doing it.

He felt a tightening around his heart, and for the three-hundred-thousandth time since he'd left her and Damon, he wondered if he'd done the right thing.

It had to be right, he told himself. It hurt the worst, and that's the proof of it. Things that really, really hurt are the right thing to do.

But I just wanted to say good-bye to her….

But if you'd said good-bye, you'd never have left. Face it, moron, as far as Elena goes you're the world's biggest loser. Ever since she found a boyfriend she liked better than you, you've been working like you were Meredith and Bonnie to help her keep him and keep away The Bad Guy. Maybe you should get you all little matching T-shirts saying: I am a dog. I serve the Princess Ele –

SMACK!

Matt leaped up, and landed crouching, which was more painful than it looked in movies.

Rattle-Smick!

It was the loose shutter on the other side of the room. That first bang had really been a slam, though. The exterior of the boardinghouse was in pretty bad shape, and the wooden shutters there sometimes suddenly came free of their wintertime nails.

But was it really just a coincidence? Matt thought, as soon as his heart had stopped galloping. In this boardinghouse where Stefan had spent so much time? Maybe somehow there were still remnants of his spirit around, tuned to what people thought within these halls. If so, Matt had just been given a solid whack to the solar plexus, from the way he felt.

Sorry, bud, he thought, almost saying it out loud. I didn't mean to trash your girl. She's under a lot of pressure.

Trash his girl?

Trash Elena?

Hell, he'd be the first person to knock out anybody who trashed Elena. Provided Stefan didn't use vampire tricks to get in front of him!

And what was it Elena always said? You can't be too prepared. You can't have too many subplans because, just as sure as God made a pesky shell around a peanut, your major plan was going to have some flaws.

That was why Elena also worked with as many people as possible. So what if C and D workers never needed to get involved. They were there if they were needed.

Thinking this, and with his head feeling a lot clearer than it had since he had sold the Prius and given Stefan's money to Bonnie and Meredith for plane fare plus, Matt went to work.

"And then we took a walk around the estate, and saw the apple orchard, and the orange orchard, and the cherry orchard," Bonnie told Elena, who was lying down, looking small and defenseless, in her four-poster bed, which had been hung with dusty-gold sheer panels, right now held back by heavy tassels in various shades of gold.

Bonnie was sitting comfortably in a gold upholstered chair that had been drawn to the bed. She had her small bare feet up on the sheets.

Elena was not being a good patient. She wanted to get up, she insisted. She wanted to be able to walk around. That would do her more good than all the oatmeal and steak and milk and five-times-a-day visits from Dr. Meggar, who had come to live at the estate.

She knew what they were all really afraid of, though. Bonnie had blurted it all out in one long sobbing, keening wail one night when the little redhead had been on duty beside her.

"Y-you screamed and all the v-vampires heard it, and Sage just picked up Meredith and me like two kittens, one under each arm, and he ran to where the screaming was. But b-by then so many people had gotten to you first! You were unconscious but so was Damon, and somebody said, 'They-they've been attacked and I th-think they're dead!' And every-b-body was s-saying, 'Call the G-Guardians!' And I fainted, a little."

"Shhh," Elena had said kindly – and cannily. "Have some Black Magic to make it feel better."

Bonnie had had some. And some more. And then she'd gone on with the story. "But Sage must've known something because he said, 'Here, I'm a doctor, and I'm going to examine them.' And you would really believe him, the way he said it!"

"And then he looked at both of you, and I guess he knew right away what happened, because he said, 'Fetch a carriage! I need to take them t-to Dr. Meggar, my colleague.' And the Lady Fazina herself came and said that they could have one of her carriages, and just send it back wh-whenever. She's sooooo rich! And then, we got you two out the back way because there were – were some bastards who said, let them die. They were real demons, white like snow, called Snow Women. And then, then, we were just in the carriage and, oh my God! Elena! Elena, you died! You stopped breathing twice! And Sage and Meredith just kept doing CPR on you. And I – I prayed so h-h-hard."

Elena, fully into the story by now, had cuddled her, but Bonnie's tears kept coming back.

"And we knocked at Dr. Meggar's as if we were going to burst the door in – and – and someone told him – and he examined her and said, 'She needs a transfusion.' And I said, 'Take my blood.' Because remember in school when we both gave blood to Jody Wright and we were practically the only ones who could do it because we were the same kind? And then Dr. Meggar got two tables ready like that" – Bonnie had snapped her fingers – "and I was so scared I could hardly hold still for the needle, but I did. I did, somehow! And they gave you some of my blood. And, meanwhile, you know what Meredith did? She let Damon bite her. She really did. And Dr. Meggar sent the carriage back to the house to ask for servants who 'wanted a bonus' because th-that's what it's called here – and the carriage came back full. And I don't know how many Damon bit, but it was a lot! Dr. Meggar said it was the best medicine. And Meredith and Damon and all of us talked and we convinced Dr. Meggar to come here, I mean to live, and Lady Ulma is going to turn that whole building he was living in into a hospital for the poor people. And ever after that we've just been trying to get you well. Damon was fine the next morning. And Lady Ulma and Lucen and he – I mean it was their idea but he did it, sent this pearl to Lady Fazina – it was one that her father had never found a client rich enough to buy, because it's so big, like a good handful in size but irregular, that means with twists and turns, and a sheen like silver. They put it on a thick chain and sent it to her."

Bonnie's eyes had filled again. "Because she saved both you and Damon. Her carriage saved your lives." Bonnie had leaned forward to whisper, "And Meredith told me – it's a secret, but not from you – that being bitten isn't that bad. There!" And Bonnie, like the kitten she was, had yawned and stretched. "I would have been bitten next," she'd said almost wistfully, and quickly added, "but you needed my blood. Human blood, but mine especially. I guess they know all about blood types here because they can taste and smell the differences." Then she gave a little jump and said, "Do you want to look at the fox key half? We were so sure it was all over and we'd never ever find it, but when Meredith went in the bedroom to get bitten – and I promise that was all they did – Damon gave it to her and asked her to keep it. So she did and she took good care of it and it's in a little chest Lucen made out of something that looks like plastic but it's not."

Elena had admired the little crescent, but other than that there was nothing to do in bed but talk and read classical books or encyclopedias from Earth. They wouldn't even let her and Damon rest in the same room.

Elena knew why. They were afraid she wouldn't just talk to Damon. They were afraid that she would get near to him and smell his exotic familiar smell, made up of Italian bergamot, mandarin, and cardamom, and that she would look up into his black eyes that could hold universes inside the pupils, and that her knees would go weak and she'd wake up a vampire.

They didn't know anything! She and Damon had been safely exchanging blood for weeks before the crisis. If there was nothing to drive him out of sanity again, the way the pain had before, he would conduct himself like a perfect gentleman.

"Hm," Bonnie said, upon hearing this protest, pushing a tiny throw pillow around with toenails that had been painted silver. "I maybe wouldn't tell them that you've been exchanging blood so many times from the beginning. It might make them go 'Aha!' or something. You know, read something into it."

"There's nothing to read into. I'm here to collect my beloved Damon and Stefan is just helping me."

Bonnie looked at her with her brows knitted and her mouth pursed, but didn't venture a word.

"Bonnie?"

"Um-hm?"

"Did I just say what I thought I said?"

"Um-hm."

Elena, with one motion, gathered an armful of pillows and deposited them on her face. "Could you please tell chef that I want another steak and a big glass of milk?" she requested in a muffled voice from under the pillows. "I'm not well."

Matt had a new junk car. He was always able to get his hands on one when he really needed it. And now he was driving, in fits and starts, to Obaasan's house.

Mrs. Saitou's house, he corrected himself hastily. He didn't want to tread on unfamiliar cultural customs, not when he was asking for a favor.

The door at the Saitous' was opened by a woman Matt had never seen before. She was an attractive woman, dressed very dramatically in a wide scarlet skirt – or maybe in very wide scarlet pants – she stood with her feet so far apart that it was hard to tell. She wore a white blouse. Her face was striking: two swaths of straight black hair and a smaller, neater swath of bangs that came to her eyebrows.

But the most striking thing of all about her was that she was holding a long curved sword, pointed directly at Matt.

"H-hi," Matt said, when the door swung open to reveal this apparition.

"This is a good house," the woman replied. "This is not a house of evil spirits."

"I never thought it was," Matt said, retreating as the woman advanced. "Honest."

The woman shut her eyes, seemed to be searching for something in her own mind. Then, abruptly, she lowered the sword. "You speak the truth. You mean no harm. Please come in."

"Thank you," Matt said. He'd never been so happy to have an older woman accept him.

"Orime," came a thin, feeble voice from upstairs. "Is that one of the children?"

"Yes, Hahawe," called the woman that Matt couldn't help thinking of as "the woman with the sword."

"Send him up, why don't you?"

"Of course, Hahawe."

"Ha ha – I mean 'Hahawe'?" Matt said, turning a nervous laugh into a desperate sentence as the sword swung by his midriff again. "Not Obaasan?"

The sword-woman smiled for the first time. "Obaasan means grandmother. Hahawe is one of the ways to say mother. But mother won't mind at all if you call her Obaasan; it's a friendly greeting for a woman of her age."

"Okay," Matt said, trying his best to seem like an all-around friendly guy.

Mrs. Saitou gestured him up the stairs and he peeped into several rooms before he found one with a large futon in the exact middle of a completely bare floor, and in it a woman who seemed so tiny and doll-like as not to be real.

Her hair was just as soft and black as the sword-woman's downstairs. It was put up or arranged somehow so that it lay around her like a halo as she lay on the bed. But the dark lashes on the pale cheeks were shut and Matt wondered if she had fallen into one of the sudden slumbers of the elderly.

But then quite abruptly, the doll-like lady opened her eyes and smiled. "Why, it's Masato-chan!" she said, looking at Matt.

Bad beginning. If she didn't even recognize that a blond guy wasn't her Japanese friend from about sixty years ago…

But then she was laughing, with her small hands in front of her mouth. "I know, I know," she said. "You're not Masato. He became a banker, very rich. Very thick. Especially in the head and the stomach."

She smiled at him again. "Sit down, please. You can call me Obaasan if you want, or Orime. My daughter was named for me. But life has been hard for her, as it was for me. Being a shrine maiden – and a samurai…it takes discipline and much work. And my Orime did so well…until we came here. We were looking for a town that would be peaceful and quiet. Instead, Isobel found…Jim. And Jim was…untrue."

Matt's throat swelled with the desire to defend his friend, but what defense could there be? Jim had spent one night with Caroline – at Caroline's pressing invitation. And he had become possessed and had brought that possession to his girlfriend Isobel, who had pierced her body grotesquely – among other things.

"We've got to get them," Matt found himself saying earnestly. "The kitsune who started it all – who started it with Caroline. Shinichi and his sister Misao."

"Kitsune." Obaasan was nodding her head. "Yes, I said there would be one involved from the very beginning. Let me see; I blessed some charms and amulets for your friends…."

"And some bullets. I just sort of filled my pockets," Matt said, embarrassed, as he spilled out a jumble of different calibers on the edge of her futon cover. "I even found some prayers on the Web about getting rid of them."

"Yes, you've been very thorough. Good." Obaasan looked at the hard copies he'd printed of the prayers. Matt squirmed, knowing that he had only been running down Meredith's To-Do list, and that the credit really belonged to her.

"I'll bless the bullets first and then I'll write out more amulets," she said. "Put the amulets wherever you need protection most. And, well, I suppose you know what to do with the bullets."

"Yes, ma'am!" Matt fumbled in his pockets for the last few, put them into Obaasan's outstretched hands. Then she chanted a long, elaborate prayer holding her tiny hands out over the bullets. Matt didn't find the incantation frightening, but he knew that as a psychic he was a dud, and that Bonnie had probably seen and heard things he couldn't.

"Should I aim for any particular part of them?" Matt asked, watching the old woman and trying to follow along on his own copy of the prayers.

"No, any part of the body or head will do. If you take out a tail, you'll make it weaker, but you'll enrage it, as well." Obaasan paused and coughed, a small dry old-lady cough. Before Matt could offer to run downstairs and get her a drink, Mrs. Saitou entered the room with a tray and three cups of tea in little bowls.

"Thank you for waiting," she said politely as she knelt fluidly to serve them. Matt found with the first sip that the steaming green tea was much better than he'd expected from his few experiences at restaurants.

And then there was silence. Mrs. Saitou sat looking at the teacup, Obaasan lay looking white and shrunken under the futon cover, and Matt felt a storm of words building up in his own throat.

Finally, even though good sense was counseling him not to speak, he burst out, "God, I'm so sorry about Isobel, Mrs. Saitou! She doesn't deserve any of this! I just wanted you to know that I – I'm just so sorry, and I'm going to get the kitsune who's at the bottom of it. I promise you, I'll get him!"

"Kitsune?" Mrs. Saitou said sharply, staring at him as if he'd gone mad. Obaasan looked on in pity from her pillow. Then, without waiting to gather up the tea things, Mrs. Saitou jumped up and ran out of the room.

Matt was left speechless. "I – I – "

Obaasan spoke from her pillow. "Don't be too distressed, young man. My daughter, although a priestess, is very modern in her outlook. She would probably tell you that kitsune don't even exist."

"Even after – I mean how does she think Isobel – ?"

"She thinks that there are evil influences in this town, but of the 'ordinary, human' kind. She thinks Isobel did what she did because of the stress she was under, trying to be a good student, a good priestess, a good samurai."

"You mean, like, Mrs. Saitou feels guilty?"

"She blames Isobel's father for much of it. He is a 'salaryman' back in Japan." Obaasan paused. "I don't know why I have told you all this."

"I'm sorry," Matt said hastily. "I wasn't trying to snoop."

"No, but you care about other people. I wish Isobel had had a boy like you instead of her daughter."

Matt thought of the pitiful figure he'd seen at the hospital. Most of Isobel's scars would end up invisible under her clothes – presuming she learned to speak again. Bravely, he said, "Well, I'm still up for grabs."

Obaasan smiled faintly at him, then put her head back down on the pillow – no, it was a wooden headrest, Matt realized. It didn't look very comfortable. "It's a great pity when there has to be strife between a human family and the kitsune," she said. "Because there are rumors that one of our ancestors took a kitsune wife."

"Say what?"

Obaasan laughed, again behind concealing fists. "Mukashi-mukashi, or as you say, long ago in the times of legend, a great Shogun became angy at all the kitsune on his estate for the mischief they made. For many long years they were up to all sorts of pranks, but when he suspected them of ruining the crops in the fields, that was it. He roused every man and woman in his household, and told them to take sticks and arrows and rocks and hoes and brooms and flush out all the foxes that had dens on his estate, even the ones between the attic and the roof. He was going to have every single fox killed without mercy. But the night before he did this, he had a dream in which a beautiful woman came and said she was responsible for all the foxes on the estate. 'And,' she said, 'while it is true that we make mischief, we repay you by eating the rats and mice and insects that really spoil the crops. Won't you agree to take your anger out just on me and execute me alone instead of all the foxes? I will come at dawn to hear your answer.'

"And she kept her word, this most beautiful of kitsune, arriving at dawn with twelve beautiful maidens as attendants, but she outshone all of them just as the moon outshines a star. The Shogun could not bring himself to kill her, and in fact asked for her hand in marriage, and married her twelve attendants to his twelve most loyal retainers as well. And it is said that she was always a faithful wife, and bore him many children as fierce as Amaterasu the sun goddess, and as beautiful as the moon, and that this continued until one day the Shogun was on a journey and he happened to accidentally kill a fox. He hurried home to explain to his wife that it hadn't been intentional, but when he arrived he found his household in mourning, for his wife had already left him, with all his sons and daughters."

"Oh, too bad," Matt muttered, trying to be polite, when his brain elbowed him in the ribs. "Wait. But if they all left…"

"I see you're an attentive young man," the delicate old woman laughed. "All his sons and daughters were gone…except the youngest, a girl of peerless beauty, although she was just a child. She said, 'I love you too much to leave you, dear father, even if I must wear a human shape all my life.' And that is how we are said to be descended from a kitsune."

"Well, these kitsune aren't just causing mischief or ruining crops," Matt said. "They're out to kill. And we have to fight back."

"Of course, of course. I didn't mean to upset you with my little story," Obaasan said. "I'll write out those amulets for you now."

It was as Matt was leaving that Mrs. Saitou appeared at the door. She put something into his hand. He glanced down at it and saw the same calligraphy that Obaasan had given him. Except that it was much smaller and written on…

"A Post-it note?" Matt asked, bewildered.

Mrs. Saitou nodded. "Very useful for slapping on the faces of demons or the limbs of trees or such." And, as he stared at her in complete amazement, "My mother doesn't know all there is to know about everything."

She also handed him a sturdy dagger, smaller than the sword she was still carrying, but very serviceable – Matt immediately cut himself on it.

"Put your faith in friends and your instincts," she said.

Slightly dazed, but feeling encouraged, Matt drove to Dr. Alpert's house.

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