Rick’s Gas and Go was a blemish of light squatting in rural darkness. The GT convertible screamed into the empty lot, laying down rubber as Dani spun to a halt. Jumping out, she shouted. “Eric? Vincent?”
No answer. Only faint whispers of the wind moving across empty fields. The station was long closed for the night with no one to question or ask for help. Her mouth and lips were dry as she scanned the area, and her hands kept tightening into fists. She pushed aside the fear threatening to lock her in place and began to search.
To Dani’s eyes, the deep shadows of night were easy to pierce—a world washed in blue and indigo. Blocking out the harsh lights of the station, she studied the sparse weeds struggling to survive in the thin soil, nothing higher than her ankle. No ditches.
“Vincent! Eric!” she shouted again.
Dammit. Spinning back, the light from the station blinded her. The phone. It was just outside the deserted convenience store, a relic from the days before cellphones. The heavy receiver swung from its silver cord. Squatting down beside it, she inhaled deeply, running the air through her nose and across her tongue. Beneath the stench of oil and gasoline, she caught the coppery tang of fresh blood.
Fuckshitcrap. Despair hammered at her. She and her brothers had always stuck together, taking care of each other when no one else bothered. In a flurry of constant relocating and hiding, her brothers were the only ones she could rely on. Their parents had certainly been too preoccupied with their own challenges to notice what their children were going through. She’d come as fast as she could when they’d called. But it hadn’t been enough—another failure.
Moving slowly over the ground, disturbing the air as little as possible, she swung her head back and forth, trying to track where the blood scent came from. Her artfully disheveled coiffure and two-inch heels were a nuisance now, so she kicked off her shoes and whipped her hair back into a practical ponytail as she skimmed back and forth close to the ground, inhaling deeply like a bloodhound. There. Off to the side and partially in shadow, a pile of old pumps and fragments of broken machinery was the only cover available near the cold bright lights. With Vincent hurt, they would have hidden rather than fight.
Studying the jumbled bits of metal, Dani noticed something that didn’t belong. Fresh flakes of rust and scratches dotting the concrete in a six-foot swath in front of the pile. Picking up a cracked alternator, she found fresh marks in the metal. The pile had been disturbed and then put back to avoid leaving obvious signs of a struggle. She shoved the junk aside and revealed something she’d hoped not to find.
Fresh blood smeared on the ground.
Dipping her fingers, she brought it close to her nose. At this range, there could be no doubt. It was Vincent’s: an unmistakable blend of liquor, old smoke, and leather. After years of living in the next room, she knew his scent better than her own. Fury blazed, tightening her arms, back, and teeth. The alternator clenched in her fist groaned as her fingers dented the pitted metal.
Rising, she was about to stalk back to the car when she noticed a stray cat staring at her from the edge of the weedy field. Its eyes were glowing green and its fur was a patchwork of colors. Above it, a slim crescent of moon rose over the fields.
Chill curled over her skin as she remembered seeing this exact scene before—almost a month ago, with her sister.
Gwen had been drawing by candlelight, curled in the corner of her room, looking more like a little girl than the young woman she was. Dani set the basin full of warm water down on the irregular flagstone floor and knelt beside her. The stale odor of old sweat couldn’t completely hide the delicate hints of lily-of-the-valley. It was her sister’s smell and couldn’t be completely smothered, no matter what—just like Gwen.
Part of her hated these visits, hated how Gwen was locked up in their family’s farm house, unable to step outside for even a few minutes. But the larger part of Dani treasured them: brief moments of lucidity, hints of the little sister who might have been. Dani always stood between her sister and the dangers of the world, standing over her bed when they were little and beating up anyone who dared to hint that her baby sister wasn’t normal.
But Gwen wasn’t normal, and it couldn’t be hidden any more, no matter how much she’d wanted to deny it and believe it wasn’t true. So Dani hid her frustration and came home to help her parents take care of her as often as possible.
“It’s important,” Gwen insisted, not looking up.
“I’m sure it is. I brought the stuff for a bath. Maybe we could do your hair tonight.” Dani touched her sister’s stiffened, close-cropped strands. The darkness of her hair only emphasized the chalky pallor of Gwen’s skin. Blue veins traced a net, as if trapping her determined spirit inside her fragile body.
“Not many pleasant images. Always remember the dark times best. Want to show me witches burning or battlefields. Sometimes it’s like I’m drowning in blood.” Gwen’s voice choked at the end and her bony fingers closed around her throat.
Dani caught her sister’s hand in her own, hoping to distract her from the visions and voices that tormented her. “Not today. Not here.”
“No. Not here.” A small mercy, given the amount of effort they’d put into creating this one safe haven. Gwen stared at the closed door, her huge eyes even wider in fear. “Out there, they scream and beg. All of them lining up and shoving to get inside—”
“They can’t get in, Gwen. Not in here. I brought some food, too. Mom says you’re not eating.” She showed Gwen the plate of fruit and gently steaming muffins.
Gwen’s face lit up in a childlike, beaming smile, brightening her bruised eyes. “For me?”
“Come on, wash your hands and I’ll do your hair while you eat.”
Gwen spread her thin fingers decorated with charcoal smudges. “Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s dirt or shadow. Is it still winter?”
“It’s spring now. The birds are building nests and there are flowers by the side of the road.” Dani dipped a cloth in water and began to wipe down Gwen’s fingers. “Soon it’ll be summer, and the sun will blaze hot in the sky, and the kids will play in their swimming pools. The ice cream truck will drive through the streets.”
“Ice cream. I’d forgotten about ice cream. Do you think you can bring me some?”
“Absolutely. But for now, these are still nice and warm.” Dani broke off a piece of muffin and put it in her sister’s cool hand. It was always chill and clammy in here, no matter how they tried to heat it.
“It’s so easy to lose track of time.” Gwen bit down on the soft pastry. “I forget so many things. That’s why I have to tell you. When the patchwork cat stares at Diana’s moon, you have to find the shadow that doesn’t belong. It’s important. I put it down for you.”
Dani froze in the middle of pouring warm water into a bowl, breathing harshly. Gwen’s mind was constantly distracted and scattered. For this one message to stick long enough to be communicated meant that it was important to her. But that didn’t mean Dani was going to be in any position to do anything about it. She finished pouring the water and brought the bowl to her sister’s side.
“Cat. Moon. Shadow. Got it. Now eat.” Dani took a sponge and began to work water through her sister’s grimy hair.
Gwen continued to pick at the muffin on the plate. “There are so many stars. We don’t even know all their names. We don’t notice when one goes missing.” She stared up at the uneven stone ceiling as Dani carefully washed her hair. “The storm is coming, blotting them out one by one. But we can’t see because we don’t know their names. The darkness will swallow us all, because we’ve abandoned the gods. Crumbling clay swept up in the trash.”
Gwen’s ramblings were filled with more cryptic hints over the last year. No one was sure if she was developing a true predictive gift or simply repeating what she’d been told. This latest exhortation sparked shame and defiance in Dani. If she’d followed family tradition and sacrificed herself to the Huntress, Dani would have become a conduit to the gods, receiving proper divine warnings for the entire lalassu people. But none of those warnings had done a bit of good in the past. They hadn’t saved Gwen or her father.
Dani took a deep breath, pushing her anger down. Gwen wasn’t taking sides, only repeating garbled and confused messages. She knew about Dani’s struggles for freedom, the hard-won balance with the Huntress. She knew about the guilt gnawing at Dani’s core, the twin fears competing for dominance: that she would someday fail to contain the Huntress and that she would disappear into the alien predator. Gwen had only been seven when she encouraged Dani to flee, telling her it wasn’t time and that if she stayed and completed the ritual, the Huntress would swallow them all.
Dani cupped her sister’s face with her hand, bringing Gwen’s focus back to the present, although it was a visible struggle.
“You don’t have to be afraid of the dark,” Dani whispered, the refrain familiar from their childhood.
“Because you’re nastier than anything else out there.” Gwen smiled, twisting around.
“Damn fucking right.” Dani smoothed her sister’s wet hair against her skull, smiling back.
“But this is bigger than you. Old wounds come back to bleed again. I can hear his footsteps echoing all around us, walking over our hiding hole. Too close to chase away. If you hunt alone, you’ll fall,” Gwen insisted.
“I don’t do partners.” The thought of being responsible for someone else turned her stomach. She was failing enough people as it was.
Gwen looked up with stricken eyes, muffin crumbs tumbling from her chin. Dani immediately relented. She couldn’t bear seeing her sister hurt.
“I’ll be careful,” she promised. Gwen’s gift gave her access to the past and present with ease, along with occasional glimpses of the future. But she couldn’t always tell one from the other. The visions had driven her mad long ago. Sometimes her advice was right on target and other times she begged Dani to stop atrocities from hundreds of years ago.
“If you hunt alone, you’ll fall.” Gwen’s bony fingers cut into Dani’s wrist, surprisingly strong. “Find the invisible man who sees the hidden truths. Find him, Dani.” Gwen’s eyelids sagged, her spate of prescience exhausting her.
Dani finished washing and rinsing her hair, combing it out and drying it with a towel. The plate of food lay forgotten on the floor. She helped her sister into bed—a thick, feather-stuffed mattress on a sturdy wooden frame. Plenty of heavy quilts and duvets were heaped on top to keep Gwen warm. Her drawing materials were scattered all over the uneven stone floor.
Tidying the room, she’d gotten a better look at the sketch pad. A weedy field with a cat sitting at the edge and a crescent moon rising above.
Exactly what she saw now in the gas station’s parking lot.
“Damn. I hate it when she’s right,” Dani whispered to the sky. Just when she thought this day couldn’t get any worse.
Find the shadow. Gwen’s final warning echoed through her head. Spinning on her heels, she went back to the rubbish heap. She dug through the trash, searching.
Beneath a rusted-out muffler was a patch of shadow slightly darker than those around it. When she touched it, instead of cool concrete, she found smooth plasticized fabric. Pulling it out, she discovered it was a torn fragment from a lightweight jacket, dark blue nylon. The shadow was found. Now she supposed she’d have to track down this invisible man. She sniffed at the nylon, catching a hint of gun oil and cheap deodorant. Was the jacket his? Or another path of investigation?
“You could have been a little clearer, Gwen,” Dani muttered at the sky, tucking the fabric away in her pocket. She’d hang on to it and search for this invisible man. But meanwhile, she would check into other leads.
Whoever took her brothers had made a serious mistake. Danielle Harris did not fuck around with anyone who threatened her family.
The Hunt is on.
To be continued….