Los Angeles, 1990
The envelope that would change his family’s life arrived on a Tuesday. It was such an ordinary thing—off white and business-sized, stamped with the return address of the department of immigration—to signal a day Markus Vogel would never forget.
Mama handed him the mail as she juggled her keys around his baby sister, Isela. Sweat made her fingers slippery, and she swore under her breath, tossing tuck one errant loc behind her ear as Isela fussed.
His younger brother whined about a kid at school who had stolen his book during recess and called him a nerd.
Mama listened with a half ear, sighing softly. “You’ve got to learn to ignore people like that, Tobias.”
Mark made a mental note to find that kid tomorrow and have a word with him.
“Go put that on Papa’s desk.” She handed Mark the mail when the door swung open. “I need to put your sister down for her nap, can you take your brother out into the courtyard to play for a little while before you start homework? Papa or I will help you finish after supper.”
He didn’t bother telling her that six-year-old Tobias would have been happy curled up with his books for the rest of the afternoon. She had a strict rule on outdoor playtime every day, even on rare rainy days.
Papa overrode Tobias’ weather based objections with some annoying saying, like: “Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, nur schlechte Kleidung.”
Mark didn’t care, he’d rather be outside. But it took an effort to herd Toby back out into the shady courtyard on a mild spring afternoon. The kind of effort that involved bringing his favorite action figures out into the dirt and letting Toby be Lady Samurai, even though she was Mark’s favorite.
They played Nightfeather’s Agents, pursuing the dreaded Others that threatened the human race. He was Mad Irish, cornered by an evil snake monster, and fighting his way free until Lady Samurai and the Strong Men arrived.
Mark forgot all about that envelope until after dinner. He finished his homework as Papa swept the table clear of crumbs, looking over his shoulder occasionally to correct an answer.
Papa paused at the envelope tucked beneath his laptop. He pushed his glasses up his nose and studied the return address. “Was ist das?”
“Keine ahnung.” Mama traded the baby for the wet dishrag. She turned to the boys. “Alright, scalawags, head to the bathroom and brush teeth. Papa will come read you a story in just a minute.”
As Mark turned to go down the hall, he caught a glimpse of his father’s bushy brown eyebrows lowering, the single page inside unfolded in his hand. The baby made a grab for it. He tucked her against his chest, out of the way, to finish reading.
“What’s wrong, Lukas?” Mama asked quietly.
He was silent.
She glared down the hall, spotting Mark in the shadows. “Hop along, you. Make sure your brother gets his back teeth.”
Papa read a short story. His mind was somewhere else: he kept forgetting to switch voices for the characters like he usually did.
That night, the scent of fear woke Mark.
“I don’t know how they can do this now, Beryl, after all these years.” His father’s voice, anger tightly leashed.
Mark slipped out of bed, crept down the long, carpeted hall, and leaned against the doorway until he could just see his parents sitting little breakfast nook at the end of the narrow kitchen. Even sitting across from one another with tension, drawing the air tight between them, their fingers were intertwined on the peeling table. Hers deep brown and long-fingered, narrow. His pale and blunt, strong, nimble.
Fear had a peculiar tang, metallic and dull. Mark knew they worried about money and work, and also something they were careful not to talk about when he or Toby was nearby. But now, in the hours dark before dawn, fear took shape in this new scent.
He knew he must be extra quiet, his mother’s sense of her children was the only thing sharper than his own nose. She just seemed to know when they were close by, awake, or upset.
Papa looked up finally. “It’s just me they’ve required to go—this is your home. Take the savings, stay with your cousins. I can send money and when the kids are older…”
Mama fixed him with one of her impenetrable expressions— the same one that made Tobias admit who broke what, and Mark confess when he provoked the fight. “Are you out of your mind?”
Papa released a long sigh and bowed his head. Pale brown hair flopped over his forehead in an unruly wave.
“I can’t ask you to leave everything.” His voice thickened.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “It isn’t a question.”
“It means starting over again.”
“Maybe it’s an opportunity,” she pressed. “I hear there are more jobs. And we have to think of the boys. It might be safer if…Better now, than later. Later might be too late.”
His eyes found hers again. “You’re sure then.”
Mama spanned the distance with her free hand and threaded her fingers through the shorter hairs at the back of his head. “I’m sorry, Lukas. I’m so sorry.”
His head jerked up, and he caught her hand in both of his. “Don’t ever apologize. I would have you no other way. And we knew there would be a chance, right? We always knew.”
“And after what happened up north—that Sasquatch camp…” She sealed her lips shut, shaking her head as if unable to finish. The words escaped her in a gasp, “They burned it to the ground, that death dealer’s goons.”
“They found plans to set off bombs in three cities,” Papa said, his words at odds with his soothing tone.
His fingertips brushed the wetness from her cheeks. Tears, Mark realized in horror: their mother, a force of nature, was crying.
“That’s what he says,” she whispered. “But can we believe him? There were younglings in the camp. And the Riverside coven never did anything more than rain and earth enrichment and he…”
Lukas squeezed her fingers, and she broke off, shaking her head.
“They say Azrael is more lenient,” she whispered. “As long as we follow—the codes. And there’s so much wilderness there, not like this city. The boys will have a chance…”
He exhaled. “Then, better now than later.”
“We stay together, no matter what,” Mama said.
Mark tried not to groan when they kissed. They were always doing that. Gross. They released each other slowly.
Papa shuffled through the papers on the table between them, picking up his pencil as though to add to the column of numbers Mark knew represented hours of his careful calculations.
“The deal is generous. There is a program that will fund the airfare, and even a starter allowance until we get on our feet if I agree to work for them for a few years. We can use the savings to buy a cabin, something in the woods where the boys can…have some room.”
Mark looked up at the ceiling when Papa pulled Mama onto his lap and his hands slid to cup her bottom. Mama made a little growling noise in the back of her throat. “Baby’s sleep.”
Mark knew enough to recognize that was code for something he really didn’t want to see. He was slipping back the way he’d come, headed back to his bed when he heard his father’s final words. “We go.”
The next few weeks were lost in the sea of arrangements to be made and documents to be filed and deciding what must be left behind.
Papa sat Mark and Toby down and told them he’d gotten a new job offer overseas, near where he was born, and he and Mama had decided to take it. There was no word about the letter.
Mark searched, but it was gone.
They were allowed one suitcase apiece with necessities and one small personal bag for the plane. Suddenly the pocked sized two-bedroom apartment seemed full of beloved belongings they would have to leave behind.
From the doorway one evening, Mark watched his father sitting among the small vinyl collection, absently stroking faded covers as Lena Horne crooned mournfully from the turntable.
Mama came from the kitchen, settling the sleeping baby in the bouncy chair on the coffee table. She pressed a hand to his shoulder, and he leaned his cheek into it. Then he rose, unfolding his long limbs and took her fingers in his own, and they were dancing, eyes closed around the living room.
The next morning a skinny guy in his twenties came by and took away the boxes of records in exchange for a stack of cash. From then on, it was the radio: National News Radio, or the Oldies station.
The apartment complex threw them a little going away party, and one by one, Mama gave away the last of her herb garden with instructions for care and watering. Mark said goodbye to his friends at school, who made empty promises to write. He also gave that bully kid in Toby’s class one more good talking to, for the sake of the next nerdy kid who came along.
On the last day, Mark came into the room he shared with Toby to find his little brother clutching his small backpack stuffed of books and trying to close the zipper. His glasses were fogged from crying, and his face flushed.
Toby’s treasured book collection filled the shelves of their room. When there was no room on the shelves, Mark had taken to lining up his action figures on the frame of his bed at night.
“Pop says we have to be ready to go to the airport in an hour,” Mark said.
Toby sniffled. “I can’t leave them.”
“Mr. Henderson will look after things. He’s going to find a nice family that needs all our stuff and send us the money, so mom and dad can buy you new books when you get there.”
“I don’t want new books,” Tobias sobbed. “I want my books.”
Mark hurried to his side. The baby was sleeping, and mama was trying to nap too. Papa warned them before he left not to disturb them.
Isela had been named for their grandmother: Isela Rose. Mark had only the haziest memories of the old woman. By the time Mark was born, Gramma Rose was barely able to rise from her rocking chair, but her smile was bright for her grandson. His only firm memory was of her skin, wrinkled as an old walnut, the same shade as his own.
Mama once kept her picture with the other ancestors on the faux mantel. Now they were packed carefully in her suitcase. She often spoke of the courage of the woman who had survived the war between the gods that nearly destroyed the world and brought the necromancers to power. Mark thought of how strong she would have to have been. If an old woman could be that tough, so could he.
Confronted with a hysterical younger brother, Mark did the first thing that came to mind. He grabbed the backpack from his own bed and undid the zipper. He dumped the contents and shoved the mess of it under his blanket, then dropped to Toby’s side.
“Genug, Toby,” he grunted, reaching for the books spilling out of the smaller pack. Speaking German, like Papa did, always soothed Tobias. “Pick the ones you can fit in here too. And hush up.”
Toby gave a few lingering snuffles, and together they packed both bags. At the sound of mama’s footsteps in the hall, Mark froze with a finger over his lips. He zipped up the bag and tossed it on his bed. Then he grabbed his Lady Samurai, Mad Irish, and Strong Men action figures and set them up between himself and Toby.
The door creaked as he’d settled. Mama yawned, poking her head in. “I thought I heard crying?”
Mark pushed Mad Irish into Toby’s hand. “No, Ma, just trying to get Toby to play with me.”
She shook her head. “Markus, what did I tell you about your brother’s name.”
He hung his head. “Nicknames are for lazy people.”
She sighed, squatting beside them on the carpet. “Tobias, stop crying, everything’s going to be ok.”
She repeated herself in German. That seemed to do the trick.
Tobias sniffed obediently as their mother’s fingers traced the wavy hair away from his face. He even looked more like papa.
She touched Mark’s cheek and shared a rare smile with him. “Thanks for trying.”
“Sorry to wake you, Ma,” Mark murmured as she stifled another yawn.
“Wasn’t really sleeping,” she admitted. “What’s Mad Irish doing out…and Lady Samurai? These are your favorites, I thought Papa told you to not to take anything out of your bag.”
He nodded. “I know, just wanted to play for a bit.”
She sighed heavily. “But when we gotta go, we gotta go, Markus. No time to go looking for lost toys. And you don’t want to leave them behind, right?”
He shook his head, unable to speak.
The front door opened, and their father called for them to leave.
Mama levered herself off the floor. “Hurry up, get these guys packed. I’ll buy you some time. Come on, Tobias, grab your bag and let your brother have a minute.”
Tobias tugged his small pack over one bony shoulder as Mama took his hand. She took it from him. “Good gracious, Tobias Henry Vogel. How many bricks are you bringing?”
Tobias grinned up at her, his round baby face shining. “No bricks, Mama. Books!”
She beamed back at him, adjusting his glasses, and steered him toward the door. “Books, of course, books.” She cast a look at Mark over her shoulder, and her smile faded a little. “Don’t take too long, ok?”
He nodded, swallowing over the lump in his throat.
When they were gone, he scooped up his action figures. He carried them to the bed, fingers tracing the familiar edges fondly. He pantomimed the sweep of the Strongmen’s powerful arms flexing, Mad Irish’s dancing feet, a few strokes of Lady Samurai’s blades. He tried to think of some other kid playing with them and swallowed the hot lump rising against the back of his throat. Then he stuffed them under his pillow and grabbed his backpack.
“Markus,” his father called. “Komm her mein Junge, wir gehen jetzt.”
Halfway to the door, he turned back. Maybe just one. He grabbed Lady Samurai and tucked her into a small corner near the zipper tugging it closed as best he could.
His parents waited in the doorway of the tiny apartment they’d shared since they’d moved down from Seattle, framed with the light of the glaring afternoon sun. Toby didn’t remember the green and overcast of the Northwest the way Mark did. All Toby knew was this endless California summer. What would Isela remember, who was still too small to stay awake for more than a few hours at a time?
He paused, taking in the image so he wouldn’t forget this moment. The large suitcases with clothes and necessities had been wheeled out into the walkway, and his parents stood with fingers interlaced. Papa, tall and angular, with sandy brown hair, recently trimmed short, wore his usual sweater over a collared shirt and dress slacks. Mama in jeans and converse sneakers, her dreadlocks wrapped in one of a seemingly endless supply of colorful scarves.
She held Toby’s hand. Isela slept in the carrier on her chest. Papa pushed the door open and extended a hand to Mark.
“Komm, Schatz,” he urged. “Wir haben ein Flugzeug zu fangen.”
Mark didn’t look back.
The airport was chaotic. Armed guards patrolled from the curbs to the checkpoint. Some had dogs, but the ones without made him shiver. Their distant eyes seemed to be gazing beyond anything a normal human could see.
Mama kept Toby close, squeezing Mark’s hand. Every time their eyes skimmed her or the boys, she tensed. A whisper seemed to be constantly on her lips, though he picked up no sounds.
Papa returned from dropping off their luggage, tickets clutched in one hand, a frown on his face.
Mama’s brow pinched. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “Just a flight delay, it’s normal. Nothing to worry about.”
Flights in and out of the country were still hard to come by, made trickier by the real borders crossed depending on the destination.
The night before, Papa had sat him down at the dining room table, unrolled a map and pointed out hand-drawn lines over the printed ones, each highlighted in bright yellow. Some encompassed whole countries by the handful, others covered enormous territories of land or sea. Eight in all. He tapped the West Coast. “Wir sind hier.”
“The Nightfeather!” Mark exclaimed. He’d seen images of the Allegiance in school. He liked the long dark hair and piercing gaze of their necromancer.
Lukas nodded, but his expression didn’t lighten. “Und wir gehen hier.”
His finger slid across the ocean to the center of Europe. It stopped on a tiny landlocked country enclosed with others all the way to the Mediterranean in the south, north over the islands and peninsulas, and east to the Caspian sea.
“The Angel of Death,” Mark whispered. “And the Red Death beside.”
The Necromancer Azrael’s territory was bordered by the female necromancer known for her vicious nature.
At least in North America, the Nightfeather’s nearest neighbor, Paolo, in Sur America, was friendly. Rumors were that Azrael and The Red Death were at odds again over disputed territory on their border. He looked at his father’s finger, well within the boundaries of the Angel of Death’s land. As safe anywhere could be. Except.
“But Papa,” he whispered. “We have to cross territories.”
“Difficult to impossible, usually,” his father agreed. “But the Nightfeather’s territory is too crowded, he and the Angel of De— Azrael, have worked out an arrangement. Repatriation. I have skills that can be useful there, and I have been—invited—to return.”
“But not to Germany?”
He tapped the map with one blunt finger. “Your mother and I chose the Czech Republic. The city of Prague is a new technological center. I should be able to get a good job. So the Vogel family will fly across the ocean. I will need your help to take care of this family on the long trip. You can do that, yes?”
At the airport, Mark remembered his promise and stayed close to Mama and Toby when Papa checked the monitors for updates. He tugged the straps the backpack on his shoulders. Books were much heavier than action figures, CDs and his favorite Mariner’s t-shirt.
“Come now,” Papa murmured. “Let’s get through checkpoint anyway, ok? We can get something to eat on the other side.”
The press of people in line made Toby wiggly and restless. The air was hot and smelled of too many humans in a small space. Mark breathed shallowly, though sweat began to trickle down his back.
“Take your brother’s hand,” Mama said as they shifted their backpacks off their shoulders.
Obediently, Mark grabbed for Toby. Toby tried to slip loose, but Mark was faster. The younger boy whined a bit but stopped wiggling when Mark caught him. When Mark looked back, Mama and Papa had stepped ahead in line, murmuring. He gave Toby a tug.
They turned and came face to face with an enormous Belgian Malinois on a short leash held by airport guard. The man wore the black utility jumper emblazoned with the distinctive formline raven—wings spread. The Nightfeather’s crest.
The dog fixed Mark with a deep stare, chest expanding like a bellows as its nostrils flared, scenting him.
An answering snarl rose in Mark’s throat, and he strangled it back. Where had that come from?
He edged Tobias behind him, unable to tear his gaze away from the dogs’ shiny black nostrils, framed in dark fur. The dog began to growl.
The muscles above Mark’s lip twitched in response before he could catch himself.
Papa shouted, scooping him off his feet and away from the dog as he glared at the guard. The dog started forward, and Papa jerked Markus back. Mama tugged Toby behind her.
“What is the meaning of this,” Papa snapped. “He’s just a boy.”
The guard’s eyes never left Mark. He touched the radio on his shoulder, muttered a number code, and then his gaze flicked to Papa. “Come with me, sir.”
Mama gasped as the dog tugged at the leash, closing the distance.
Papa snapped. “Restrain your animal, they are children…”
The passengers around them edged away as more black-clad officers materialized in the crowd. No one would meet their eyes, Mark realized. Pity at best, suspicion at worst hovered in their faces. But no one spoke in their defense. No one dared.
Mama’s voice lowered. “Lukas.”
“Please come with us,” the handler ordered. “All of you.”
The air conditioning that had been absent in the main hall turned the waiting room off the security checkpoint into a refrigerator. Below the unit, a slow drip formed an uneven blotch of water-stain.
Their carryons had been piled on the stainless steel table on one side of the room near the scanners.
Mama sat in the only chair, tugging Mark close. She swept her fingers over his cheek, down his ear to his collar. Her mouth moved the whole time, silent lips forming words as she stroked his shoulder and his arm to his fingers. She moved to the other arm. Her occasional shudder had become a steady shiver.
Papa shrugged off his sweater and made her put it on. Tobias snuggled into her chest around Isela, whimpering softly.
Mark clenched his teeth to keep them from clacking. His hoodie irritated the goosebumps springing up on his arms and neck.
Papa paced. He’d surrendered their papers. He met Mama’s eyes, saw something that made the color drain from his face. But he nodded without speaking and resumed pacing.
There were no clocks. Mama touched the crown of Mark’s head. She looked faded, her skin dim somehow. “Will have to do.”
Finally, the door opened. Three guards entered—an Asian man with a ponytail, the one with the dog, and a woman in plainclothes with an official looking lanyard swinging around her neck. She smiled tightly, gesturing for the one with the dog to wait by the door.
This time Mark kept his eyes on the tile, ignoring the clack of the dogs’ nails on the floor.
“What is the meaning of this delay,” Papa asked, but indignance bowed to strain of worry in his voice, “You want us gone, we’re leaving.”
“Everything is in order, Mr. Vogel,” the woman said, with the weighted air of one overworked and out of patience. “We’ll just do a quick check of your bags, and you’ll be on your way.”
Mark heard the shuffle of papers changing hands and mama’s sigh. He snuck a glance at the guards. The guy with the ponytail scanned the bags with a wand before unzipping each and poking through the contents.
“Sir?” The dog handler spoke. He sounded younger in this small room, less authoritative than he had in the main hall.
The woman’s brow rose. “Yes, Private?”
The handler reddened, acne scars visible under his flush. He didn’t look much older than a teenager. “The boy.”
Mama’s grip on Mark’s shoulder tightened so hard he would find bruises later. It was all he could do not to flinch, but he kept his face blank, impassive returning his gaze to the water stain.
“My son,” Papa’s voice held a note of iron Mark had never heard until that day. “A child that you menace with an animal.”
Mark almost broke his stare to look into his father’s face as heat and tightness wedged itself into the back of his throat and pressed against his eyes. In his peripheral vision, he caught a glimpse of the dog, attentive but not focusing on anything in particular.
“I apologize, Mr. and Mrs. Vogel,” The woman sighed before turning to the young guard. “It must have been a false positive.”
“But, sir,” the handler said.
“Enough, Iglesias,” she said. “They don’t show so young, you know that. Get back on the line.”
“Sir,” The handler mumbled, and the dog heeled to his side.
Mark’s gaze darted up once more. The dog looked back, sniffing, and then followed the handler obediently from the room.
Mark felt like his knees might melt and soak into the legs of his jeans. He heard Mama’s exhale beside him. That did him in.
Papa knelt in front of him as the first tear slipped free.
Mark wrapped his arms around his father’s neck, and when the man stood, his feet left the floor. His father hadn’t carried in years.
Papa’s free arm lowered, and Mark didn’t need to look to know he and Mama had clasped hands. Tobias kept his face nestled in Mama’s collar. Isela began to protest at being squished.
The second uniform finished the inspection. The woman in charge returned their papers. Lukas shifted Mark to handle both documents and their carryons but didn’t put him down.
The woman opened the door leading to the departure hall. Mama was outside, and Papa halfway when the uniform called. “Hey! Just a minute.”
Mark tensed and felt his father’s body answer. Still, Papa’s expression was calm and mildly irritated.
The guy with the ponytail held out a small plastic figure with a hesitant smile. “This must have fallen out. Is it yours?”
Mark saw the familiar figurine and gorge rose in his throat. Papa shook him gently. “Schatz, are you all right?”
“Lady Samurai,” the uniform said, offering it up. “She’s my fave. Yours too?”
Mark shook his head and buried his face in his father’s neck, breathing deep. Papa smelled like aftershave, and hazelnuts and that pervasive tang Mark now knew too well: fear.
Papa shrugged at the uniform. “Guess not?”
The overhead paged their flight number. The officer nodded. “Go ahead.”
Mark’s last glimpse of the worn figurine was the uniform tucking it into his breast pocket as the door closed behind them. He pressed his cheek against his father’s collar and wept.
To be continued in Conjuring Moonlight (Tooth & Spell Book Two) coming soon from No Inside Voice Books.