Baen books by mercedes lackey

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she heard her cat, her familiar Greymalkin, say in her mind.

That did it. That broke the hold for a moment, as Grey had probably figured it would.

“Selfish beast,” she said aloud, with a shaky laugh.

On the strength of that laugh, she got to the door, and opened it. There was no one in the hallway, with its worn brown carpet and forty-watt lighting. It was people that triggered her panic attacks, not places.

She chose her time and day carefully. It was early afternoon, the day of the All-Star game. Those people who were not at the game, or the pregame events, or thronging to glamorous parties in hopes of getting a glimpse or even an autograph of some movie star, or on the streets hawking cheesy giant foam hands and sun visors, were either at work, or at home. No one sane went anywhere, unless you could do so without resorting to any major streets or, god forbid, the Interstates. The traffic reports said that within a mile of some of the Star Parties it was taking an hour to go three blocks. The grocery stores would be deserted. Earlier this morning there would have been a last-minute run on the staples of the day: beer, hot dogs and buns, beer, ice, beer, soda and beer. Now, bored employees would be bowling in the empty aisles with frozen turkeys. Fortunately, the neighborhood of Peachtree Park would be spared most of the horror of the day. It was a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood, but the workers had, for the most part, long since retired to their thirties-era bungalows. There wouldn’t be many barbecues here today; the residents were inside to watch the game, sensibly isolated from the unseasonable heat (ninety degrees in February!) and the bugs, and especially from the “Georgia State Bird,” the mosquito. So the streets should be as deserted as if it was four a.m. on a Sunday.

She made it down the hall to the elevator, an ancient model complete with brass grill inner doors. She pushed the button for the first floor, and the old cage shuddered and made its slow descent. There was no one in the lobby. Her sneaker-shod feet made barely a whisper against the worn-out gray linoleum as she crossed the lobby and let herself out through the front door.

The parking lot was full. This was, after all, a fifteen-story-tall apartment building constructed in an era when people took buses and streetcars to work. The parking lot was always full, and those few residents who didn’t own a car could command a nice little monthly fee for the use of their assigned space. Vickie’s was as far from the building as physically possible, because the super knew that she only moved her little econobox when she absolutely had to.

It looked as if there wouldn’t be much in the way of cloud cover today, and cars would turn into ovens, even with the air conditioning on. It was only around nine a.m., but this was going to take her…a while. Her little light blue, nondescript basic-mobile was parked under a giant live oak, which could be a nuisance in acorn season, but its shade was nice now. She could actually hold the steering wheel without using oven mitts.

Once in the car, she let out a sigh of relief, and waited for the trembling in her arms to stop. The first hurdle was cleared.

Actually driving was not a problem, even when there were other cars on the street. It wasn’t rational, but her gut regarded the car as a safe little shell, and the panic eased back to jitters as she negotiated the narrow, thirties-era streets. Peachtree Park wasn’t a trendy neighborhood, and it certainly had seen better days, but it wasn’t a slum. Cracking and peeling paint, and aging roofs, stood in contrast to the immaculate yards.

At the border of Peachtree Park and the next neighborhood of Four Corners, things were changing. There was an Interstate exit that fed Four Corners. There had been demolition and rebuilding in the fifties, then the seventies, and now again. Here was the chain grocery Vickie made her pilgrimage of fear to whenever the supplies got too low. As she rounded the corner, she prayed that she would find the parking lot empty.

It was, and again she breathed a sigh of relief. There was nothing there but five identical semi-truck trailers—odd, but…

Well, it was the day of the All-Star game, and it was entirely possible the drivers had realized they were never going to get anywhere today and had rendezvoused here to watch the TVs in the cabs and have an impromptu party of their own.

This was the least of her worries. In a moment, she would park the car. She would have to get out of the car, and walk to the entrance of the grocery. Only a few feet but—there would be people there. People who would stare at her, the way they had looked at her—after. With revulsion. With loathing. With hatred—

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