A bell rings over the door and announces my presence as I step into the small shop of the petrol station. A middle-aged woman behind the counter looks up from her book and smiles. “Top o’ the morning, to you, lad. Now what can I be doing for you today?”
Her smile is easy and infectious, and I find myself returning it without effort. “Top o’ the morning, to you,” I say and step over to the counter with my map.
I glance out to the car, but Brennan hasn’t moved from the driver’s seat. He hasn’t even turned off the engine. I return my eyes to her, and the warmth of her smile burrows right down inside me. A mother’s smile. I remember one a lot like it.
“Ah,” I say, and lay down the map in front of her, “we’re a little bit lost? We’re trying to find our way to the home of Dugan Coey, and, our . . . map . . . ?”
At Dugan’s name, her smile has utterly vanished, replaced by what can only be fear—even her scent changes, though it would say much more to my other nose. She stumbles back a half step and hurriedly crosses herself—head, stomach, shoulder, shoulder. “Oh, Mary, Mother of God,” she whispers.
”I’m sorry . . . is there . . . something wrong?” I ask.
“Leave now,” she mumbles, her voice cracking. “I don’t want no trouble. Please just be on your way. I ain’t never done you any harm.”
“Harm? Ma’am?” I ask, totally at a loss. Okay, perhaps not totally at a loss, but incredulous, at least. The sign of the cross? Seriously?
“I know you be one of the them—none other would be asking after that one. Please, just leave me be!”
Odd. Dugan’s lot not been keeping out of sight when changing, or something?
I blink at her a few times before I formulate an adequate response. “Ma’am, I’m really . . . not sure what you’re talking about,” I say, shaking my head slowly. I hold my hands out, palms up, and shrug. “We’re just lost, and need some directions. I have no intention of hurting you . . . .”
She huddles further back against the wall, her hands up defensively near her shoulders, and says nothing.
“Ma’am, please. I’m just up from the city, I’ve never been out this way before. I have to deliver a package for my boss. Really! I just need some directions . . . . “
I do my best to sound innocent and confused. I don’t have to work too hard on the confused part, at least.
What the hell has been going on out here?
I hold the map out again, but she still doesn’t budge from the wall. Tears are forming in her eyes, and her breathing is fast and shallow.
“I’m sorry Ma’am,” I say, as sincerely as I can. “I really didn’t mean to trouble you. I’ll go. Again, please . . . I’m sorry.”
I turn and step to the door. The bell peals out again as I pull it open.
“Don’t go out there, lad,” she says, in a strangled whisper, as if it might cost her her life.
“I’m sorry?” I ask, turning back to look at her. Her hands have dropped from her shoulders, and are now clasped together in front of her chest.
She makes a strong effort to calm herself, and the smile almost manages to regain a hold on her face, but not quite. “It’s not a place for . . . good folk, the Coey lands. You mustn’t go out there.”
Wow. But at least she’s decided I’m human.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I have a package I have to deliver. My boss . . . he’s not the kind of man you want to anger.” And my own smile returns, at the thought of how much truth I wrapped up in that lie.
The look of worry on her face doesn’t ease, but perhaps I can reassure her. “I won’t stay long, if that makes you feel better . . . just drop it off and go.”
She watches me for another moment, then reaches out her hand. I close the gap and give her the map.
“You’re here,” she says, pointing to the spot I’d already identified. Her voice and hand are shaking. “Take this road to here”—she traces a route with her finger—“and then turn down here. You’ll be going all the way to the end, over here.” She looks up and meets my eyes with one of the most worried-motherly looks I’ve ever seen. “And please, lad, do your business and get away from there as fast as you can.
“That lot is unholy.”
I nod and do my best to reassure her with my smile. “I will. I promise. Thanks for your help—and the warning.”
As I step out the door I say again, “I won’t stay,” and nod. She manages a smile in response.
I run to the car, eyes wide, and hop in. I point in the right direction and Brennan pulls the car back out onto the road.
I haven’t a clue what I could say about what just happened, so I say nothing at all.