What IS The Firebird’s Regret? Probably not what you think

The sixth story in the Harley Firebird series will be released in a couple of weeks, which means it’s time for a long-ish excerpt from the beginning of the book (in lieu of the usual Chapter One).



The Firebird’s Regret

Harley studied the view from the back verandah of Moira Falconer’s grand old house, trying to find something to say that would adequately convey her feelings. “There has to be at least two hockey rinks’ worth of garden…” she breathed.

“Close to four,” Bohdan murmured, beside her. As one of her two police officers, Bohdan Trask rarely sounded dazed or even surprised. He appeared to be both, now. “She really is going to plant the entire plot?”

The nearly four hockey rinks’ worth of field had been ploughed since the snow had melted and the soil had grown warm enough to be worked. A dozen people walked across the turned sods in the bright morning sunshine. One of them was Moira Falconer. Her diminutive figure and white hair were distinctive.

Akicita Frazier, the mayor of Falconer and Harley’s employer, waved to them from the middle of the field. Then she beckoned.

“I guess I’ll go find out why I was sent for,” Harley murmured. “Stay here, Bohdan,” she added. “No need for both of us to get our boots muddy.” She resettled her wings in behind her and trod down the steps to the pretty flower garden at the foot of them, and moved through it to the gate into what had been a farmer’s field, beyond. Now it would be a market garden, for Moira Falconer didn’t do anything by halves.

Harley nodded at the gardeners working in the newly defined plots. It surprised her to realize that she knew nearly everyone. Moira had found many of the homeless in Falconer and put them to work. Everyone was one of the Old Races, and most of them looked very happy to be working outdoors in the mild May sunshine.

When Harley reached Akicita Frazier, Moira Falconer had also made her way across the rows to meet Harley there. She nodded at Harley. Her face was pale beneath the white hair—but it had been a long winter. Harley smiled politely back, for Moira Falconer funded part of Harley’s salary, which made her Harley’s employer, and not just the town’s founding family representative. “This looks very ambitious, Moira.”

“Feeding families that can’t feed themselves is merely good sense,” Moira replied. “Giving the unemployed something constructive to do with their time is also sensible.” A dot of perspiration showed at her temples and Harley wondered if the work of building a new market garden to feed a whole town was beyond even the redoubtable Moira Falconer. She was in her seventies, a fact that all her money couldn’t get around.

But Harley couldn’t fault Moira’s intentions. “Are you paying the workers you’ve found?”

As she spoke, Campbell Von Havre, the town’s only dragon, walked up the row to join their conversation. Harley stiffened, for as a firebird, she was beholden to Campbell. But as the town’s police chief, she disapproved of the man’s shady methods of going about his business. Because those methods benefited Falconer, Harley had settled for a polite truce with the man, although she had made it clear that if she ever came across direct evidence of his grey-hat ways, she would be forced to act.

So far, he had been smart enough to not leave that evidence around for her to find.

Moira nodded at Campbell. “There’s not much use for money in Falconer,” she said in response to Harley’s question. “But they will be compensated with fresh food when we harvest, and I plan to buy items in Calgary that they can’t get here, and distribute them.”

“Things?” Akicita Frazier echoed.

“Beds and shelters. Solar hot plates and pans. Toys for the children.” Moira shrugged. “It is a long list.”

“It is,” Campbell murmured. “I have a truck or two you can use, when you’re ready to place your order, Moira.”

“Thank you, Mr. Von Havre,” Moira replied. “That would be useful.” She pressed her lips together for a moment, as if she had more to say and was disciplining herself to remain silent.

Harley shifted on her feet. Her skin was prickling the way it did when she was near an open flame, only there was no fire near them.

“Did you hear that the Federal government’s proposal regarding Old Ones has been passed?” Akicita asked Harley and Campbell.

Campbell cleared his throat. “I glanced at it.” His tone was polite. He was shifting on his feet, too. As a dragon, he would also be aware of heat. But the day was mild. Summer was weeks away.

Harley tried to focus on the question. “We’re officially not dead anymore? They were discussing that weeks ago. But we’re not citizens, either, so in practice, nothing really changes.” The status of the Old Ones was now formally “indeterminate.”

“Legally and politically, it’s a huge step forward.” Akicita’s tone was the one she used when addressing town hall meetings.

“Laws and politics don’t feed people or clothe them,” Moira Falconer said, her tone crisp.

Then she swayed. It was a tiny movement that Harley might have missed if she hadn’t been looking directly at the women. Moira tried to hide it by turning to look behind her, as if that had been her intention all along.

“The heat is coming from you!” Campbell reached to grip Moira’s arm. “You’re ill, Moira. You’re running a fever.”

“I’m fine,” Moira said, in the same snappy tone.

Harley stepped around Moira to examine her face. “You’re pale and sweating. How long have you been like this?”

Moira looked as though she was about to repeat her denial.

Akicita moved around to see her face, too. “They’re right,” she said gently. “I can feel the heat coming off you myself. Are you transitioning, Moira?”

Moira’s shoulders slumped. Her gaze dropped to the ground. “I thought it was simply a cold.” She grimaced. “I hoped. There’s too much to do here…” She looked around the huge garden plot. “And my flowers…” The normal garden surrounding the house featured prize winning roses and an acre of profuse blooms that at the height of the season could bring strangers driving by on the main road to a halt to admire the display.

“I’ll make sure the work is done here,” Campbell said, his tone also kindly. “You need to head into town, Moira. Find Dr. Pranee. He will help you through what comes next.”

Moira nodded reluctantly.

Akicita put her hand on Moira’s arm. “I’ll drive you there.”

A shudder rippled through Moira. Harley could see the fever was tightening its grip. “Better take her now, Akicita,” she added.

Akicita tugged on Moira’s arm. “My car is at the front of the house. Can you walk that far, Moira?”

“I’m transitioning, not dying,” Moira said, with a touch of her usual no-nonsense attitude. She stepped along the path with a determined stride.

“Still planning on becoming a fae, Moira?” Harley called after them.

“Of course!” Moira called back.

“She put in an order for that?” Campbell asked in a quiet tone as the two women headed for the house.

“It’s Moira Falconer,” Harley pointed out. “If anyone could decide what they emerge as, she would be the one.” Harley considered his coldly handsome face. “I have to get back to work. Do you know why Moira wanted to see me? Is it something I need to do?”

Campbell shook his head. “I was summoned, too. I think Moira wanted us to the see the garden, now that it was too late to protest that the project was too big for her to take on.”

“That sounds about right. Although now she’s transitioning, that will change things.” Harley turned on one heel, taking in the huge plot. “I can send people here to work off misdemeanors.”

“An hour of weeding for jay walking? A novel idea.” Campbell grinned.

“New ways of doing things is endemic in Falconer.” She shrugged.

“That’s because we have no other choice,” Campbell replied, his tone grim. Then his expression lightened once more. “Let me buy you a cup of coffee, Harley. We can talk about how to keep the garden going while Moira is away.”

Harley laughed. “Nice try, Campbell.” She turned away. “But I really do have a police station to run.” She headed for the house, where Bohdan and the official police vehicle waited for her.

“You figure Ms. Falconer willbecome a fae like she wants?” Bohdan asked, as he pulled the big black four wheel Jeep drive onto the main route into Falconer. The Jeep was Akicita Frazier’s “other” car, which she had given the police station to use as their official police vehicle.

“If there is an intelligence running the universe, I hope it’s wise enough to meet Moira Falconer’s expectations,” Harley said.

“Didn’t think you believed in a higher power, boss,” Bohdan said with a grin. He accelerated smoothly, for the roads had been clear of snow and ice for a couple of weeks.

“I don’t,” Harley said. “Which is why I shudder to think what will happen if Moira Falconer doesn’t become a fae. I can’t imagine what she might do if she becomes an orc.”

Bohdan laughed. “Sue someone, maybe? Not sure who, but…” He frowned, staring down at the dash. “Shit.”

“What?” Harley demanded, alarm crashing through her.

“No brakes,” he said shortly and grabbed at the hand brake. It rose without resistance, a useless lever. “Fuck,” he added. “Hang on.”

Harley thought of reaching for the seat belt, but clutched the dashboard with one hand, instead. The belt wouldn’t reach over her wings and around her middle. All seat belts were designed for human use.

She gripped the padded handle on the passenger door with her other hand. “Drop it to first gear!”

“It’s an automatic!” he cried.

She let go of the dashboard, grabbed the t-shaped gear stick, depressed the button on the side and rammed it through the gears to the “1” at the bottom of the range.

The engine snarled angrily in response and the car perceptively slowed, but not enough. They had been rounding the last big curve outside of town, that brought the road up to the bridge across the river, which was currently swollen with snow melt. Bohdan had been sitting at the speed limit.

“Not going to make it,” he muttered, his jaw flexing, his eyes on the road.

“Drop us into the river,” Harley shot back. “It’s softer.”

“It’ll be freezing.”

“I’ll warm you,” Harley told him.

He glanced at her, startled, then jerked his gaze back to the road. The wheels were skidding and jittering, unable to take the curve. “Hold on,” he muttered, as the tires hit the edge of the road. He deliberately straightened the steering wheel, aiming directly for the river.

The solid end post that anchored the guard rails of the bridge flashed past the driver’s side fender, and they bounced and rattled across the rocky terrain between the road and the river.

The vehicle shot out over the edge of the river bank and for a second or two hung in mid-air. Then the nose dropped, and the car curved toward the swirling grey green water and rocks below.

Bohdan threw up his arms, shielding his face.

Harley flipped the high corner of her wing around in front of her face, and hung on grimly with both hands.

The impact with the water threw them both forward. She heard Bohdan give a pain-filled cry as the engine ran choppily for a few seconds, then died.

The water was already rising up around the car, pushing it sideways, trying to shepherd it down river along with all the other meltwater, branches and detritus it had collected from the higher altitudes. The car settled heavily and the water rose up to the windows.

They were going to go under.

Harley pushed her wing back to check on Bohdan. He was leaning against the steering wheel, his eyes closed. Blood ran from a cut on his forehead. The sight of the blood told her what hadn’t happened. The air bags hadn’t deployed.

She shook him. “Bohdan! Wake up!”

He groaned, but didn’t open his eyes or try to lift his head.

The water was pouring into the cab in a steady stream through the bottom of the doors, and from narrow apertures in the front of the cabin where controls and wires reached through to the engine. The car would swiftly fill with water.

Harley pulled her phone out of her jacket and thumbed the first fast dial number, put her phone to her ear, and shook Bohdan harder.

“Harley…you called me, for once?” It was Tiriaq Frazier.

“Crashed into river, north end of town. Car is going down. I’ll get Bohdan out, but he’ll need help after that. Hurry.”

She disconnected, put the phone back in her jacket. The water was up to her upper calves, and painfully cold. Outside the cab, she watched the last two inches of daylight at the top of the windows disappear as dirty river water rose up over them.

Harley wasn’t sure what she did, exactly, to generate heat. She only knew that it worked. She concentrated on filling herself with the warmth that would offset the chill of the water, then ignored the faintly cold touch of the water against her skin and turned to Bohdan. She unclipped the seat belt and got it out of the way, then pulled and yanked at his uncooperative body, drawing it over the console between the seat, until he was lying over the console, his back against her. She arranged his arms so she could get hers under his, then reached behind her and fumbled blindly for the window controls, pressed them and hoped there was enough electrical current still running through the car to operate the window.

Nothing happened.

She swore and reached for the short night stick on Bohdan’s belt and plucked it free. She turned awkwardly and rammed the end of it against the window, over and over. The glass cracked, starred, then burst inward. Smelly river water raged through the opening, deluging both of them.

“Omigod, that’s cold!” She got her arms around Bohdan and radiated heat around him. “Bohdan, if you can hear me, take a deep breath.”

She was encouraged by the feel of his chest expanding as he took a breath.

Harley got her boot up against the console, tucked her sodden wings in tightly behind her so the elbow joints were behind her head. It was an uncomfortable position to hold them and one she could only maintain for a few seconds.

At the last second, she gulped a big lungful of air, then the water was over their heads. She pushed off the console with her foot and wriggled to get through the window and draw Bohdan with her. Once her wings and Bohdan’s shoulders were though, she could feel herself rising through the water—her wings were buoyant and were doing most of the lifting.

She jammed her bootheel against the sill of the car door and pushed off again.

They rose for long seconds—had they really gone that deep so quickly? The water should have been numbingly cold, enough to disorient a human and hamper their movements. Harley blasted heat like a furnace to compensate.

They broke through the surface and Harley gasped in more air. She could feel Bohdan doing the same.

Her wings were letting her float without effort, even with Bohdan’s weight. She let him go long enough to grip the back collar of his jacket and began to swim with one arm, angling downstream and across it, so she didn’t have to fight the current.

The river was running very high and the banks dropped on the other side of the bridge. They had travelled a long distance from the bridge by the time Harley reached the banks. Harley hauled Bohdan out over the low bank, both of them streaming water. Steam rose around Harley from the water she was heating with her internal furnace.

She could hear car engines heading in their direction from town. Tiriaq had sent up an alarm, as asked.

Harley lifted Bohdan up into a sitting position. He was a dead weight in her arms, but she could warm him more easily that way. She bent her wings around them to create a wind break and waited for help to arrive.

Is the firebird’s past catching up with her?

The brakes on Harley’s official police vehicle fail, sending her and Bohdan Trask into an icy river.  Only Harley’s special talents save them.

Harley can’t dismiss the incident as a mishap, for the coincidences swiftly pile up after that, including her catching a frightening glimpse of someone from her dark past.  But is it merely her stressed out imagination, or is the threat real?

The Firebird’s Regret is part of the Harley Firebird urban fantasy series of novelettes, which is set in the same world as Taylen Carver’s Magorian & Jones series.

The Harley Firebird series:
1.0: The Dragon of Falconer
2.0: The Orc Who Cried
3.0: The Shepherd of Fire
4.0: The Mad Folk of Falconer
5.0: The Badge of Our Tribe
5.5: Harley Firebird Files
6.0: The Firebird’s Regret
…and more to come.

Urban Fantasy Novelette

And don’t forget that if you pre-order your copy directly from me at Stories Rule Press, you get it a week early.  That is, next Thursday, April 7th.

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