Jeff Lovett followed the druggy home, and once well out of the public eye, stunned him with a thought and scooped him into a bubble.
Ace Worley lived alone, in a rundown apartment full of garbage. It stank. Almost as much as Xen's wino. On the other hand, Ace had a job that Jeff was reasonably sure he could do himself.
Jeff had followed Ace for three days, wrapped in a spell of unnoticeable. The few people who even saw him thought he belonged wherever he was. Even half drugged, Ace never spotted him. Jeff tucked the handles of the bubble back into his pocket, and headed for the Gate. Q could fix him to match Ace, then Ace could lose some time while Jeff took care of his job, and collected and ran information on the side.
He strolled down the street, the unnoticeable spell softened to something that induced a mild indifference. It was a lot safer crossing streets when the drivers could see you. He stepped around to the bubbled apartment, through the back door and through the Gate.
The far side was an Empty World. Exceptionally uninteresting, the highest forms of life were crawling around on the ocean floor. The temperatures tended toward cool, the air dry, the view over the ocean spectacular. Q had built a few little houses, with enough embellishment that he rather thought she'd gotten bored.
A pair of witches looked him over.
Q introduced them. "Do you know Indigo and Dusty? Jeff's parents are business partners with Vani and her husband and Cordelia's mother. "
"Oh, and that cute Damien? The hauler with the strange mental shield?"
"Damien has a shield? Is he magic?" Jeff blinked in surprise.
"Yes, after a run in with Jade and Teri." Q looked at him curiously, then shrugged. "Let's see what you've got. Oh, nasty. But at least he's your size and coloring. I can minimize the bad teeth, but the nose and chin . . . I'll need to mold your bones to match."
Three hours later, “Ace Worley,” cursing his aching facial bones, numb fingers and palms, and watering eyes, was back home. Cleaning. Using Xen's death-to-chitinous creatures spell profligately. Figuring out how a Laundromat worked. Reporting for work and driving a street cleaning machine for six hours. It steered about like the rolligon, and was dead slow otherwise. He followed the mapped route and returned before the afternoon rush home.
He was looking forward to collapsing onto clean sheets . . . the door of his apartment was open. There were people inside. Children. Lots of them. A woman stepped out of his corner kitchen, lifting her chin defensively.
"We got evicted. We'll only stay a couple days?" What had started as a confident declaration trailed off into uncertainty. "At least a couple’a the kids are yours, after all." She tucked a strand of black hair behind her ear. Ran her hands through it, nervous.
A couple of the kids. He tried to count the kids running around and gave up at seven. All with hair so black it was nearly purple. He could only tell them apart by sex and size. "Umm, there's no room?" I feel like Uncle Damien, attracting kids like meat attracts maggot flies. Except I may have beaten his life long total in one lump.
"We got no other place." She slunk up close to him, looking desperate, not amorous. She must have been spectacular when she was younger.
He sighed. "I'll take the couch, any kids that won't fit with you in the bed will have to sleep on the floor."
She looked surprised, almost shocked. Then hurt. "Oh. You have someone else."
"No. You just didn't look like you were here out of anything but desperation."
“When did that ever stop you?”
“Since I went straight. No drugs, no alcohol. Don’t bring any here, got it?”
She nodded, definitely shocked.
He walked around her and stared at the nearly empty refrigerator.
“I got enough for some pizza or something.” She fumbled at her pockets.
Jeff shuddered. “I’ll go shopping, the kids’ll need some good food.”
She was still staring at him as he hustled back out the door.
Earth didn’t have any proper markets. They had “supermarkets” with a tiny produce section and rows of shelves full of boxes and cans. At least he could buy dried pasta and didn’t have to make it himself. Various cuts of raw meat in sealed antiseptic packages. More packets of pre-cooked meat. He read the fine print, and shuddered. Loaded up what ought to be about three days worth of stuff. And paper plates and plastic forks and spoons.
The woman, talking on her communicator, identified herself to someone as “Bee.” The conversation involved Bee’s employment, to his relief.
“What are you doing these days?”
“Workin’ in a nice place, selling’ watches and jewelry.” She shrugged. “Off an on, part time. Tomorrow I’ll work the mornin’ an’ through the lunch hour, then get home b’fore the kids are outta school.”
Jeff paused. “Umm, Jewelry? Used or new? I’ve got a source . . .”
“Stealin’s worse than drugs . . . well, not really, but, well, yeah we sell some antique stuff, on consignment.”
“Show me some pictures, I know a lady who makes jewelry.”
She bit her lip and nodded.
He had to cook the chicken himself. Bee had looked baffled at the raw meat. “What about school?” He started plunking down platefuls of stir fried chicken and broccoli on noodles.
“I’ll get the kids up early, an’ outta here,” Bee assured him.
The kids poked at the broccoli as if they’d never seen anything green in their entire lives. The oldest girl nibbled, then wolfed it all down. The others followed her example.
“Kids sure do grow fast.” Jeff eyed the collection and tried remember names as insults and complaints passed.
Peter looked like a twelve year old who hadn’t started his teenage growth spurt. Eileen looked to be barely a year younger. Bruce, Marlene, Wendy, and Russell looked to be six to nine years old. George and Raymond possibly three and four. The toddler was Prissy. He had no idea which of them might be Ace’s children. And since I’m not Ace, it hardly matters.
They had the worse table manners imaginable, following the example of their mother. Eileen eyed “Ace” and tried to copy him. Jeff surveyed his possessions, and then theirs, and headed for the thrift store. Good thing it was open late. Cheap sleeping bags in gaudy colors and weird perspectives on people doing impossible things or cute animals, a collection of tee-shirts. Do they go to school? Do I dare give Bee any money and suggest she shop for some clothing for them? He toted the unwieldy load home, where it was pounced upon gleefully. He collected clothing as it was discarded, and hauled loads to the Laundromat. Put a spell on “his” machines so other people would leave them alone.
The kids laid out their new sleeping bags in front of the TV. Bee and the three youngest kids took the bedroom. Once Jeff was done with laundry, he looked at his stuffed apartment and shook his head in disbelief. A gentle, well disbursed sleep spell allowed him to turn off the TV, and crash on the couch.
And wake up in the middle of the night and dispense healing spells until various coughs and sniffles disappeared. A pain reduction spell for what he diagnosed, from experiences with younger siblings, as a new tooth coming in for Prissy.
This family thing was definitely bad for the beauty sleep. But as cover for a spy, it was hard to beat. If he could just rent a bigger place.