Finances had never been a specific area of focus for Tam, but she’d brushed up against different parts of the credit industry both as part of her work with the Second Chance Club and the hacking she’d done on her own before then. Almost universally those contacts had been unpleasant for one or both parties, so she wasn’t surprised to hear that an 18 year old girl who was on her own for the first time had run afoul one or more money related disasters. What did surprise her though was the apartment that Laura had secured for herself.
“This place is nicer than I expected,” Tam said, turning off Jim’s bike.
Behind her, Dixie waited until the kickstand was down to hop off the seat and start looking for her sister’s apartment.
“Laura said it wasn’t bad. I guess she made up her mind that she was moving out about two years ago and she’s been making plans for it ever since.”
The apartment building wasn’t one of the “great edifices of the wealthy and powerful”, but it was in a convenient location, with a nice view of the nearby park, and access to a bus stop. The grounds were clean and, at least from the outside, the six story building seemed to be well maintained. In terms of living arrangements it beat most of the ones Tam had managed to find for herself until she was well into her professional career.
“Is she expecting you?” Tam asked.
“No,” Dixie said. “I kind of didn’t have time to call her before I left.”
“Is she even home? Can you give her a call?”
“She said she’s working nights, so she should be home,” Dixie said. “I was thinking we could surprise her though.”
“Does she like surprises?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes?”
“Call her then,” Tam said and offered Dixie her cellphone.
Dixie waved the offer away and pulled her own phone out. Calling her sister took only a moment, but her expression turned to confusion.
“It says the number’s not in service?”
“That’s not a good sign,” Tam said, the information pointing to a pattern she didn’t like to see forming. Mysterious banking problems plus unexpected phone disconnections could easily be the result of malice rather than stupidity.
“Are you looking for someone?” a heavy set man asked, as he stepped out of the doors leading to the apartment building’s main stairway.
Tam glanced over to him, smelled a scent of the ocean that wasn’t supposed to exist this far inland and did a double take. The man was many things. Large. Powerfully muscled, though bulky enough that he merely appeared obese. And wearing a coat with the building’s logo on it.
What he wasn’t, was human.
“Wahlri?” Tam asked, trying to place the specific sea breeze that she was smelling.
The man scowled and glared at her for a moment before his expression softened.
“You’re a sharp one, magician,” he said. “Not looking for trouble I hope?”
“That depends,” Tam said. “What sort of trouble do you have here?”
The Wahlri were a race of shapeshifters, primarily aquatic but it wasn’t uncommon for them to venture onto land, and even create lives and build families for themselves there. Unlike the more protean form of shapeshifters who could assume a wide variety of shapes, the Wahlri only had an oceanic form and a land form. That limited the sort of the problems they could cause but their tempers could be as mercurial and violent as the sea. That combined with their surprising physical power made them dangerous opponents to underestimate.
“No trouble here, unless you bring some and we don’t need any of that,” the Wahlri said.
“Have you seen the woman who lives in apartment 2C?” Dixie asked. “She’s…umm…a little big.”
“Laura?” the Wahlri said and then brightened. “Oh, you must be her sister Dixie! She talks about you a lot.”
“You know her?” Dixie asked.
“Yeah, she just moved in here a few months ago. Good kid. My name’s Owen. I’m the super here.”
“Do you know if Laura’s home?” Tam asked.
“I’m not allowed to answer questions like that,” Owen said. “You can use the callbox to see if she’s available though. It’s just inside the door there.”
Dixie looked at Tam, as though Tam needed to give her permission. Knowing it would speed things up, Tam nodded approval and remained behind to speak with Owen.
“Everything really ok here?” she asked.
“With Laura? Yeah, as far as I know. I know she had some trouble at home, but things seemed to working out for her here.”
“Any reason her phone would be out of service?” Tam asked.
“I don’t think so. It was working yesterday at least. How do you know her?”
“I don’t,” Tam said. “I ran into Dixie and saw she needed a hand.”
“And you dropped what you were doing to drive her out here?”
“It’s kind of my job.”
“That’s a heck of a job. Only place I know of that does things like that is the Second Chance Club.”
It was Tam’s turn to react in surprise. The Club’s existence wasn’t a secret but it also wasn’t widely known of or talked about.
“You’ve worked with the Club before?” she asked.
“Not me. My great-grandparents were members back in their day though. They said a woman named Charlene helped them get settled here when the tides turned against them.”
The coincidence of running into someone, especially a somewhat magical someone, who knew about the Club left Tam yearning to turn to her spell craft to find out if Owen was telling the truth.
He could be luring her into a trap. He could have done something to Laura with the intent to draw in family members like Dixie and people like Tam. She could be standing on dangerous ground and not even know it!
With controlled breath, Tam put those fears aside. Sure, things could be bad. But she could handle bad, and leaving room for the good to flourish in life sometimes meant taking a few risks.
“The Club’s still around,” Tam said. “Dixie didn’t write to us for help, so I’m a little outside my purview, but there’s no restriction on helping people we run across and once you start doing it, it gets hard to stop.”
“That sounds like the club my Great Grams told me about.”
“What club is that?” the woman who spoke was on the largish size, as Dixie had said. She was also dressed in the sort of baggy, comfortable clothes that said she was more likely running personal errands that coming back from a work break. Her makeup however was done with the kind of expert craftsmanship Tam only enjoyed when she had a professional handle it for her before a show.
“Where I work,” Tam said. “We help out people with special requests. At the moment that means giving a ride to someone who’s car broke down on the way to help out her sister.”
“I guess it’s kind of the day for that,” Laura said, stepping to the side reveal an even younger girl who’d been hiding behind her.
“That’s not your sister is it?” Owen asked, looking towards the building where Dixie was emerging with a frustrated look on her face.
“No. This is Stephanie,” Laura said. “Is it ok if she stays with me for a little bit. She’s kind of in a bind.”
“Sure, but what’s the matter?” Owen asked, offering his coat to Stephanie without appearing to think about it.
“Better to talk about it inside, I think,” Laura said.
“Is everything ok?” Dixie asked. “I tried calling the Limo company and they said they were looking to have you come in early and that I should call them as soon as I knew where you were.”
“You should call them?” Tam asked. “Shouldn’t an employer ask the employee to call in?”
“Let’s get inside,” Owen said and herded the lot of them into the building and led them to his apartment rather than Laura’s.
As they walked, Tam glanced at Stephanie and noticed the wary look in the young girl’s eyes. It wasn’t unreasonable. There were a lot of stranger around her. But she wasn’t paying any attention to Tam, Dixie, or Owen. She was looking behind them and ahead of them. Tam had seen that look before. She was looking for monsters, the kind whose inhumanity was all on the inside.
“So I lost my job,” Laura said to begin the conversation.
“But you said working as a limo driver was good pay and good hours,” Dixie said.
“It was, except for the part where my boss is an abusive ass,” Laura said. “Oh, and in the mob.”
“Those aren’t great traits on their own,” Tam said.
“Well, he’s in the hospital now, so, that’s…probably not all that great,” Laura said.
“What happened?” Dixie asked, her eyes narrow as though she could guess most of the details already.
“I wasn’t supposed to be in today,” Laura said. “But I needed to pick up my paycheck early to deal with the bank stuff. Turns out there was just a typo on my account, so that’s fixed but the wireless deposit didn’t go through like it was supposed to.”
Tam blinked. Sometimes corporate stupidity really was the reason things went wrong when dealing with banks. Every day held its own surprises it seemed.
“You walked in on something you weren’t supposed to I take it?” Tam asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“The police were supposed to take me away from my Dad, but they were working for him,” Stephanie said. “I didn’t know that.”
There was a lot to unpack there, but Tam could guess the general shape of the it when she added mobsters into the mix.
“Steph was really brave,” Laura said. “She called in a tip on some things her father did with a promise that they’d get her somewhere safe, only that didn’t work out.”
“How did you get involved?” Owen asked.
“With a 2×4,” Laura said. “I mean, it was just laying there, and when they started dragging Steph away, I…I couldn’t just do nothing.”
“How many were there?” Tam asked.
“Three, counting her father,” Laura said.
“Two armed cops and a mobster? Not bad. And they’re only in the hospital?” Tam asked.
“As far as I know, yeah,” Laura said.
“Do they know where you live?” Tam asked.
“No. I put a PO Box down on my application because I was still looking for a place when I called them the first time,” Laura said. “That’s why I thought it would be safe to hide out here for a few days.”
“What kind of plans do you have then?” Tam asked.
“I kind of hadn’t thought that far ahead yet,” Laura said. “One problem at a time right?”
“I wish it were ever that easy,” she said.
“I really don’t know where we go from here then,” Laura said.
“It’s my fault,” Stephanie said.
“No. It’s not. You stopped something bad from happening to other people. You deserved to have someone stop something bad from happening to you,” Laura said.
“Yeah, but now they’re going to…do bad things to you,” Stephanie said.
“Not necessarily,” Tam said. “Am I right here Laura, that all on your own you decided to take on a group of people far more powerful and well connected than yourself for no other reward than the safety of one person who was in trouble? Just because you wanted to give her a second chance?”
“I mean, I didn’t put that much thought into it. It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Laura said.
“It was,” Tam said.
“Can you do anything for her?” Dixie asked.
“Oh, I think I know a few people who can help,” Tam said, hitting the speed dial keys to conference Val, Jimmy B, JB, and the rest of her immediate teammates who were available.
The local mob and their crooked cops were going to have a very bad few days indeed. All without a single spell being cast.