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Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy

 

Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy

 

By J. Michael Gonzalez

 

© 2017 J. Michael Gonzalez, all rights reserved

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Cover Design by James, GoOnWrite.com

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are ficticious, and any resemblance to real people or events is strictly coincidental.

 

Author’s Website

http://jmichaelgonzalez.com

 

ISBN: 9781370902026

 

 

 

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away

Percy Shelly, Ozymandias

 

 

 

“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Contents

 

Copyright

Expected Company

Leaving LA

Bottomed Out

Time On Paper

Art Therapy

Wind Change

The Learning Curve

Strength Limit

Fast_Friends

Marked: Daniel

Marked: Nicolette

Ground Zero

Ryan

Burdens

Kashmir

Chemistry

Cleanse the Evil

Seek the Truth

The Knee of the Curve

Premonition

The (Dead Man) Mr. Ford

Deja vu

A Sortof Date

The Club

Near Miss

The Ride Home

Other Fish

Questions Asked

The Second Arrow

Harbingers

Father and Son

Catalyst

The Rubicon

Something Brave

Fugue

The New Reality

Leaps of Faith

Wreckage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One: Expected Company

 

WHEN the knock finally came, Miles was just finishing his preparations in the kitchen. He had been expecting his visitor since awakening with a panicked shout in the predawn hours, sweat-soaked sheets twisted about his body. The dream had imprisoned him with razor-edged images of violence and ruin, stubbornly resisting his semi-lucid struggles to awaken. Though many of the dream’s specific details had attenuated throughout the afternoon, two images had retained their dream-like hyperreality, coming into focus as the rest of the dream faded: yellow eyes glimmering in the foggy gloaming, watching him through his kitchen window; and the girl, eyes glazed with the ecstasy of her magic, fire and decay spreading in her wake, corrupting everything she touched. Though the premonitions had been coming less frequently of late, this was one of the strongest he could remember; it filled him with dread, like some monstrous scorpion clinging to his back, its claws pulling at his thoughts.

There’s work to be done, he thought grimly as the knock was repeated, a tight lipped smile touching his features as familiar undercurrents of fear and excitement percolated through him.

He briefly settled in his chair at the kitchen table, checking his preparations, ignoring the twinges in his knees and hips as he sat. Earlier that afternoon, he had experimented with the placement of the sword relative to his chair, arranging the furniture and practicing until he could snatch the scabbarded blade without looking and execute a left-handed slash over the kitchen table. He had practiced the move -- ignoring the dull pain in his joints -- until he could grab the scabbarded blade, draw and cut between ticks of the clock mounted over the refrigerator behind him. He nodded once in satisfaction as he scanned the kitchen one last time, his heartbeat quickening.

The work of a Celestial Advocate is a young man’s work, he thought, though he still looked forward to sparring with this adversary. He chuckled at his vanity, knowing it was foolish, but unable to suppress his anticipatory excitement. He crossed his small, sparsely furnished living room, unconsciously flexing his hands, pushing away the dull fibrous pain; nearly six decades of work with fist, sword, and heavy caliber firearms had taken their toll.

Even Celestial Advocates have a limited shelf life, he mused, still an integral part of the celestial machinery even if they’ve been granted a special place within it.

It was a risk answering the door unarmed…but even weakened by age as he was, an Advocate was never truly weaponless. He paused, one hand on the doorknob, closing his eyes in concentration as he extended his senses beyond the door; he sensed darkness (was it nighttime already?), fog…and his visitor, standing on the other side of the door. His concentration deepened as he unconsciously cocked his head to the side (a tremor of unease passed through him; it wasn’t so long ago that he hadn’t needed to concentrate at all); he realized he was searching for a heartbeat which wasn’t there.

He nodded as his eyes opened; he had read that part of the premonition correctly, then.

As his guest knocked a third time, a mischievous smile began pulling at the corner of his mouth. He pulled open the front door, revealing a tall, nondescript man wearing a pea coat -- at least, he would have appeared nondescript to someone unable to pierce his Glamour.

To Miles, he looked like something else entirely.

The man favored Miles with a sardonic smile, dipping his head in a nod of subtle mockery.

Miles smiled gently back, waiting.

The man’s smile became forced as he realized that Miles was waiting for him to speak, that he wasn’t going to make an invitation until it was explicitly asked for. It was an absurd and childish power play, but one which the man was forced to concede.

His voice was a pleasant tenor, though his accent was hard to place -- neutral news caster American, perhaps with the slightest hint of upper class London, “I’ve always wanted to meet you, old man. If you would be so kind...it would be nice to step in out of the damp.”

Miles smiled graciously, “I’ve prepared some tea; it’s just finishing brewing.”

The man hesitated, frowning slightly, but hid his irritation well, “Tea would be lovely.” He made no move to enter.

Miles waited a moment longer, fighting to suppress his smirk, then stepped back, “Then by all means, come in and join me for a cup.”

“Thank you.”`

Inviting evil into your home, he thought, always a tricky prospect. He’ll doubtless leave a token behind…bother.

Have I become arrogant?, he wondered, a trickle of doubt pooling in his thoughts.

The man made his way through the living room into Miles’ kitchen, settling at the table at his gesture. His visitor watched patiently as Miles prepared the tea in silence, long practice lending artistry to his careful, precise movements. It unnerved Miles to have his guest almost at his back, though he wasn’t so foolish as to let his visitor completely out of his sight; he had arranged his kitchen so he could watch the other out of the corner of his eye with the sword propped against the granite countertop near his hand. He glanced into the alcove over the kitchen sink, at the small ‘decorative’ mirror in a stylized brass sun-shaped setting. He smiled faintly at what he saw there...or didn’t see, really. He had mounted it there -- thirty years ago? thirty seven? -- after another guest had unexpectedly tried to kill him; his shoulder still twinged when the weather turned stormy.

“I remember your sire,” Miles murmured, wondering how long their veneer of civility would last.

He heard the frown in his guest’s voice, “She still holds a grudge over your murder of Carbrey.”

The emphasis on the pronoun was unmistakeable. Miles suppressed a quiver of fear, forcing an indifferent shrug as he returned to the table bearing two glazed cups decorated with white herons taking flight over a forest pond, “I’ve been abundantly clear about the boundaries of my domain. Carbrey and his get were trespassing; I disposed of the invading vermin accordingly. It was fortunate you weren’t part of the raiding party, Berwyn.”

Miles struggled to hide a smirk as he affected a muddled expression, “…or Attercop, is it now?”

It was childish and mean-spirited, but he couldn’t repress the impish glee that surged through him; the temptation to goad his visitor was hard to resist. He struggled not to grin as his visitor became unnaturally still, his gaze filling with malice. He quickly regained control, schooling himself back to stillness.

Pity, Miles thought, revising his estimate of his guest’s threat upward as doubt momentarily bubbled back to the surface. Disposing of him would have been easier if he could have been taunted into a rage.

“Archangel, old man; I am Archangel now,” his visitor sneered. Miles filled Archangel’s cup first, disappointed that he’d side-stepped the gibe before continuing, “The Dark Lady has a long memory, old man. She won’t forget your slight.”

‘…and neither will I’ , Miles silently finished for him. Though his sire’s destruction had freed Archangel -- his new name symbolic of that release -- Miles had always known Berwyn...Archangel...would eventually seek him out.

Miles shrugged again, filling his own cup before settling across the small kitchen table from his guest. He pretended to sip his tea as he studied the man, noting Archangel’s gaze flicking to the sheathed sword propped against the granite countertop. Archangel’s lips tightened in consternation before he could master his countenance, returning to patient stillness as he reluctantly pulled his gaze away from the blade.

Miles suppressed a chuckle, [_ No old friend, that’s not The Sword -- I hid that from you weeks ago. You’re worried that if you can’t see it, I must have some trick planned. _]

He grinned at his visitor. The weapon leaning against the countertop -- though real enough to kill -- was partially meant as a prop, a distraction from the Desert Eagle mounted under the table. He doubted it would destroy Archangel, but half a dozen .50 caliber silver-tipped slugs would probably ruin his day.

His visitor’s frustration momentarily boiled over, “You won’t be able to hide here in your little ghost town much longer; the world is changing, old man! The old order is collapsing; something new must grow in the vacuum!”

Miles grimaced, “And naturally you—“

“Give me the girl!” Archangel interrupted. “We both know she’s returned to your domain. What will you do when her power manifests? This little ghost town you’ve made will become the very little eye of a very big storm. Do you think to stand against the entirety of the Sundered Havens with your decrepit carcass, old man? Can you even pass an hour without pissing yourself? Or do you plan to…dispose of her…when she comes into her power? Murdering your kind has never been your modus operandi, despite your reputation. Give me the girl, and you can grow old here in your little graveyard.”

He smirked, adding, “Well..older, at any rate.”

Miles suppressed an inward sigh; another premonition come true -- the Mortal Heir was in his domain. He had prayed she wasn’t, that she could be someone else’s problem; he had been so tired, lately. He wondered, not for the first time, whether Merdathin’s mysterious visits were somehow related.

The pieces fit, he thought, his jaw tightening with consternation. Merdathin never did anything with a single purpose in mind. If he ever resurfaced, Miles resolved to ask him before killing him…even supposing he could kill him.

He pushed the thought to the back of his mind, irritated at his wandering focus; he had more pressing matters to consider.

It all comes back to the girl, he thought sadly. He pitied her for the misery and sorrow he foresaw in her future. He had fought to keep his domain free of monsters like Archangel, but he knew his visitor was right on both counts: when she came into her power, she couldn’t be ignored; and Miles wouldn’t murder an innocent. He shuddered at what her life would become if he allowed Archangel to take her away. It would be better if she was dead than to fall into his hands.

Or the Dark Lady’s, for that matter.

He would die to prevent it, he decided -- though he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Staring into his visitor’s eyes, he felt a chill run down his spine, a cold premonitory prickle that left him sweaty and shaken, wishing he could handle the loaded Desert Eagle mounted under the table, knowing its cold solidity, heavy with deadly purpose would bring him comfort; he was suddenly filled with certainty that the girl was not to be his task, that his work for the Celestials was almost done; but the way been prepared, his successor chosen. If his successor should fail…he shuddered as dream images of fire rose before him; it might be better if she died in her sleep after all. He suddenly felt small and exhausted, his mind unfocused in his failing body.

Still an integral part of the celestial machinery, he reminded himself bitterly.

As if reading his thoughts, Archangel ground his teeth with frustration. His patient smile returned, becoming predatory as he moistened his lips with the tea, “It’s almost time, old man.”

Miles stared out the window, taking in the chilly, foggy evening, suppressing a shiver of fear as he nodded, “Almost. But not tonight, I think.”

A sudden calm descended over his thoughts. He gently placed his tea cup on the table, his lip curling in response to Archangel’s widening smile. He heard the faint creak of muscles bunching.

Thunder filled the kitchen as Miles pulled the trigger underneath the table, the percussion splitting his eardrums, jolting his ribcage, making the teakettle jump on the countertop. Blood splattered the wall behind Archangel; his agonized bellow shattering the mirror in its decorative setting as he stumbled backward, his chair slamming into the wall behind him with a cottony thud! after the Desert Eagle’s thunder. Miles triggered three more rounds from under the table, spattering the off-white paint behind Archangel with overlapping sprays of gore, forcing him back another step.

The scabbarded sword was already in his other hand when Archangel roared again. Miles dropped the pistol as Archangel flipped the table out of the way, an errant splinter stinging Miles’ neck as it shattered into kindling. The blade was a silvery blur as he drew and cut to meet Archangel’s lunge. A fan of blood sprayed across the wall as Miles felt the tug of razor edged steel pulling deeply through flesh. Even in his dotage, he was fast, bringing the blade around for a second cut.

It should have finished it.

It should have…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homecoming

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two: Leaving LA

 

NICOLETTE started her long journey home from her friend Angela's place early on a Sunday morning-- well before the sun began to rise. Angela hadn't been awake to see Nicolette out the door, which suited Nicolette just fine; seeing her friend’s relief at her departure would have been hard to bear. Her presence at Angela's house had made Angela nervous. She was probably worried that Nicolette would ask to spend another night, and another after that, and so on until either Nicolette brought the cops down on her, or she had to kick out her unwelcome roommate. Just thinking about it made Nicolette want to sigh. She wasn't like that anymore, if she ever really had been; her memories of her time with Angela as her friend were pretty hazy. Nicolette had genuinely wanted to spend exactly one night, just long enough to make a couple of phone calls and have somewhere warm to sleep afterward. She had a schedule to keep, a journey that she’d been planning for the last two and a half years.

Today, it was finally starting.

Her journey had truly started with the click of the door latch behind her; Nicolette suspected that no amount of knocking would have brought Angela to the door once that lock clicked shut. She sighed, a little hurt not to be trusted, but aware that perhaps the suspicion wasn’t wholly unjustified…but for all the wrong reasons. Still, it had been great to sleep indoors in a bed; it beat sleeping in the bus terminal or wandering around downtown until it was time to go.

“Thank you, Angie,” she murmured into the chill predawn silence, her throat aching with emotion, “you came through for me.”

Knowing the best way she could repay her friend would be to leave without fuss, she turned and began her walk to the corner where she intended to catch a bus downtown. She felt giddy as she stepped down from the front porch to the walkway, then through the flaking wooden gate to the sidewalk. It was exciting; she was moving from the known to the unknown, feeling a little bit like old Bilbo after he had been dragged from his comfortable and predictable hole. The Road goes ever on and all that.

She was truly leaving. That in itself was a victory worth celebrating.

She had little hope that her reception at the end of her journey would be a warm one; at this point she was hoping for a quiet, unnoticed arrival and a little breathing room to begin rebuilding. The bus arrived on time, roaring and wheezing down the somnolent city street, its noise and stink magnified by the slightly hazy stillness. She stepped aboard, pausing to study the sleepy people on the bus, most of them likely on their way home from late shifts or Los Angeles nightlife, wanting only to find cool sheets and a warm blanket.

Not unkindly, the bus driver tapped the fare-box, “Gotta pay to play, honey.”

Nicolette quietly dropped in the requisite change and wandered down the aisle, stumbling slightly as the bus lurched back into motion. She sat on the left side of the bus, sliding all the way to the window. She watched the city shudder past, hands folded patiently in her lap, unconsciously fiddling with the coil of wire wrapped around her ring finger.

She stepped off the bus downtown, barely noticing the sleepy urban landscape surrounding her; its novelty had long ago ceased to register. It was just scenery, now -- hopefully just bad memories she could start working to forget in an hour or so. Suppressing a shiver in the chill pre-dawn, Nicolette walked the quarter mile to the Megabus terminal. The man in the ticketing window glanced at her id, accepted her cash, and gave her a ticket for the 6am North Bound Shuttle. Nicolette hadn't really expected any trouble, but she dreaded being recognized or having to explain where she’d been the last three years. He barely even noticed the blonde-haired, dark-eyed girl. To him, she was just another traveler with her own reasons for leaving the city anonymously on the cheap.

The bus was a long, blue animal with darkened windows, giving her the impression of an elderly man wearing wraparound sunglasses. It spoke to her of safety, anonymity, and travel under the radar. Her nervousness eased as the bus began to board moments after she finished her business. She took a seat on the lower level, near the back. She didn’t have any baggage to check.

Just the clothes I’m wearing, she thought, the contents of my pockets, and the bitter cup I’ve been given to drink from.

Her spirits were pretty low, but she was leaving Los Angeles behind. She cast her mind back over the long boredom, back through all the humiliations and indignities moving to LA had necessitated, her regret and loneliness and doubt…and couldn’t come up with a single thing she had done that she felt proud of in this city. The one thing she had no doubts about, though, was her initial decision to leave Half Moon Bay and disappear into the depths of Los Angeles, like a cockroach fleeing the kitchen light.

At least I escaped from Mother, she thought, caught in the familiar dull ache of paired guilt and relief.

(three drops of blood, spattered on ugly yellow linoleum…waiting for the bus while the unseasonably warm sun beat down on her shoulders…rumble of the bus making her head feel as though it was going to split apart…guilt, despair, crushing self-hatred)

She blinked rapidly at the ugly memory, forcing it down before it could fully blossom in her mind’s eye.

First things first, she thought.

Even now, seven years after her escape, two years after her mother had died, Nicolette still felt guilt and a sense of failure. She could never shake the feeling that she could have tried just a little bit harder, that perhaps there was some kind of effort threshold and if she had just managed to cross it, everything might have come out okay. She knew that was fallacious, that her childish need for approval was hard-wired into her brain, that it would take years to fully exorcise that feeling, but knowing the truth did little to assuage her guilt. She still felt as though she’d somehow failed.

With a shuddering roar, the Megabus came to life, grumbling resentfully at the lightening cityscape. She waited for the vibration to change into a rumble as the bus slipped into gear.

As it put on its traveling shoes, she thought with a slight smile, feeling impatience and anticipation begin to rise past her depression.

Do a little dance, sing a little song, get the heck out tonight, she thought, suddenly nervous. She wondered if this was how Orpheus must have felt when the gates of Hades opened.

One difference between you and me, Orph old pal, she thought, is that if I turn around and LA disappears, good riddance.

Of course, LA bore more resemblance to Hades than Eurydice in her heart. Abruptly, the bus lurched into gear and began to slide along the curb, making the turn into traffic after pausing at the light. Her spirits rose as she realized it was finally beginning to happen -- she was finally leaving LA -- with luck, never to return.

Maybe you never left Harlan alive, Patty, she thought, but I sure as hell am leaving LA alive. Damaged, maybe. Battered, definitely. But alive.

She had escaped; for now that was enough.

 

An hour later, as the sun rose over the mountains, the bus was climbing the long slope into the Grapevine on the 5N. Soon it would descend into the sere Central Valley, laboring its way back up the state to the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, one more stop on her way to the coast -- to Half Moon Bay.

To home, she hoped, her eyes filling with unshed tears.

She sat, her face turned to the window, her hands in her lap, calmly watching the landscape as the bus slowly but inexorably put the miles behind it. Her plan was finally in motion, but for the moment there was nothing for her to do but wait.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three: Bottomed Out

 

IT was a little after 3 in the afternoon when the bus crested a rise and began its descent through the verdant coastal mountains. She was finally in the home stretch after almost ten hours on the road. It had started with the downtown bus to the Megabus station early that morning in Los Angeles. After almost six hours cruising up the 5, she had dismounted in San Jose, already feeling weary, but still with nearly 5 hours of travel to go. It was the first time she’d set foot in the San Francisco Bay Area since she’d left…escaped…deserted. She frowned at her inability to decide what words described her departure from Half Moon Bay, her birth place. Most of Daniel’s family was probably still there, though she knew her own father and siblings had left shortly after her mother died two years ago. The thought that she might be in such close proximity to her second family (and Daniel!) left her simultaneously giddy with anticipation and nauseous with dread. Most of the probable outcomes were likely bad ones, but the giddiness just wouldn’t close up shop and go away.

Earlier that afternoon the Megabus had dropped her off in the San Jose station where she’d walked across the platform and caught Caltrain -- light rail -- up the Peninsula. She had almost made it across the platform before being stopped by a middle aged man in an expensive suit asking her to autograph his pocket silk. The intensity of his grey-eyed stare had unnerved her, but he seemed friendly enough. She was surprised by the dull ache in her chest as she watched him quickly hurry away from her, as if afraid of being seen with her.

At least he said ‘thank you’, she mused, forcing herself to feel bitter amusement at his furtive retreat in lieu of hurt shame. Almost 4 years since she’d last been in front of a camera, and fans still recognized her. She sighed, hoping Half Moon Bay would give her more anonymity than Los Angeles had.

By the time the train boarded, she had shaken if off. She had long ago learned how to compartmentalize chance meetings like that. There was a time when she would have been thrilled by the encounter, pleased to have been recognized by a stranger…

She found a seat on the upper level, her curiosity driving her to seek a broader view for the trip back. She had rarely traveled this far from the coast in her youth (though some might call 24 youthful, she certainly didn’t feel very youthful after 6 hours on Megabus!). Nicolette tried comparing her memories of the South Bay and Silicon Valley to her memories from her previous trip, but couldn’t really find many differences.

Of course, when you’re concussed and blinded by tears for half the trip, it’s hard to make a really meaningful comparison, she thought, feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted.

I guess coming home was bound to dig up things that I’d worked hard to bury, she thought. I feel like some kind of cut-rate paleontologist, digging through layers of bad decisions and unlucky breaks. A real paleontologist finds bones, she thought. What will I find? Will the bones just be a dry, fossilized record of past mistakes, or are they going to be the festering remains of my life in Half Moon Bay, holding records of pain and sorrow still unresolved?

As her throat began to tighten, she abandoned the absurd line of thought. If she kept flogging herself with her regrets, her return journey would be just as heart-breaking as her outbound one had been.

At least then my memories would have symmetry, she thought ruefully.

She stared out the window as the train rode its tracks through the heart of Silicon Valley. She knew it was supposed to be an ‘Economic Powerhouse’, driving the economy of the state and possibly even the nation. To her it mostly looked like freeways, low boring buildings, and trees tamed to the urban environment. For such an important place, it looked plain and uninteresting, like a strip mall, but without any shopfronts or eye-catching marquees. It depressed her, and she was glad when the light rail ride ended near the shopping mall. She glanced westward toward the mountains, seeing flows of grey mist beginning to pour between the peaks, a slow motion wave drifting down the green, forested slopes.

Half Moon Bay is just the other side of those mountains, she thought. Where Daniel probably is, the thought arising before she could stop it. She had a brief memory of his brown eyes twinkling with amusement, a smile pulling at the corner of his lips. Guilt and betrayal surged through her, momentarily overpowering the hopeful longing accompanying the memory. Angrily, she pushed the memory down, but knowing she was so close to her destination got her feet moving. From the mall, she caught the 294, almost the last leg of the journey. The 294 went west into the mountains, passing over the Crystal Springs Reservoir, a lake nestled in a valley between green, forested mountains. It was beautiful as it caught the afternoon sunlight, but she was exhausted, barely able to summon enough interest for more than a cursory glance at the long water in its forested valley.

I need to call Ramona, she thought, her exhaustion unable to completely blunt her fear and anxiety. She wanted to discretely suss out Daniel through his mother, and to apologize…

She shook her head, suspecting that running away had probably hurt Ramona almost as much as Daniel. She didn’t think Ramona would be happy to hear from her.

Later, she thought, tamping down a brief spasm of paired guilt and worry.

As the 294 crested the low coastal mountains and began the long descent on the other side, her earlier giddiness resurfaced along with dread. After seven long years away, it was hard not to react to all the possible scenarios she’d imagined, both good and bad. The bus traveled through tamed pine forest, passing long stretches of wildness, interspersed with dirt roads winding back up into the woods marked by mail boxes.

She was once again settled on the left side of the bus, resting her head against the window, enjoying the vibration though the cold glass. She watched for familiar sites or places that she might have visited (with Daniel!, her mind unhelpfully supplied before she could stop it). The bus wheezed to the top, then began the long roll down the switchback, where it passed the invisible but intuitively felt border between The Wilderness and The Town. She watched, her throat tight.

As the bus finished the lower half of the switchback and climbed a short hill, she waited in anticipation, watching for the Christmas tree farms: long orderly rows of cultivated pine trees of various ages, types, and sizes. It was one of the things that identified the border of Half Moon Bay for her.

When the road wound past the trees and through the horticulturists’ alley, her eyes did fill with tears as she unconsciously pressed her palm against the window. She watched the figure of a rusted red tyrannosaurus rex as the bus drove past it. It was a huge iron sculpture, purposefully made to rust and gain texture and character in the North Coast air. It stood as a sign for passerby, to attract the interest of tourists and to mark a small collective of produce and souvenir shops, marking the eastern edge of the city.

“Clifford!” she murmured huskily, a name she had bestowed on the monster during Beverly Willards’ sixth birthday party. The kids had started a game which involved fighting the attacking monster, but when Nicolette had first laid eyes on it, she had immediately dubbed it ‘Clifford’ after said big red dog and set herself to defend him against his vicious, soulless attackers (i.e., her classmates). Daniel had wanted to be one of the knights slaying the dragon, but Nicolette had forced him to stand with her and defend him. By the end of the party (or at least, when the parents had realized the children were all but playing in traffic), all the kids had switched sides and were defending the fearsome, rusting monster from The Poachers (at the time, Nicolette hadn’t known what the word meant, only that it signified bad people that hurt animals). Even then, she thought, she had loved Daniel, albeit in the uncomplicated way of a child. He was her knight, her protector, her best friend…eventually, almost her first lover.

Her biggest betrayal.

She watched, her heart beating faster as the bus topped a small rise, the trees drawing apart like a curtain framing the road; the ocean came into view, a grey somnolent expanse, extending all the way to the pale glimmering line underneath the early evening fog. Her breath caught, as the mystery and majesty of the ocean filled her with a momentary rush of anticipation. The bus approached a busy intersection, then wheezed its way over to the side of the road. People -- mostly kids coming from the mall -- stood up and began filing off the bus onto the sidewalk. She took a deep breath, then forced herself to her feet, a strange mix of excitement and dread roiling about in her stomach. She descended the steep steps, then took the last long step down, meeting the gray, chilly afternoon. Out on the coast, the high-altitude fog tended to roll in early. It was going to be a damp evening.

She watched as the bus roared away, its passengers dispersing toward the mini-mall parking lot, or to the crosswalk across the main avenue. She was left alone at the bus stop. She still had to finish some last minute business, eventually to return and wait for one more bus to take her to Montara, a small suburb about 6 miles north up the 1 -- the Pacific Coast Highway. Angela had made the reservation at the lighthouse hostel for her the month before. Her excitement slowly drained out of her, leaving only dread, and a dreary sort of exhausted disappointment.

She was home, had come full circle. She’d left to escape this place, running blindly, only caring that she was getting out.

Well, here I am , she thought, feeling as though she’d once again run away from an impossible situation in Los Angeles. She sighed deeply as she settled onto the bench, feeling thoroughly defeated. Soon, she’d have to start confronting the wreckage of her first failed escape, but for the moment, she was thankful that there were other more pressing matters that demanded her attention -- starting with getting to the Lighthouse and maybe calling Ramona to get his contact info; the number she had didn't seem to work any more.

Welcome home, Nikki, she thought bitterly. When she had left Half Moon Bay seven years before, she’d thought she could never feel more thoroughly beaten, beaten by the exigencies of her life and the consequences of her decisions.

Apparently she had thought wrong; that realization stung her eyes and the back of her throat.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four: Time On Paper

 

TWO days later, Nikki sat in a small, claustrophobic office, blinking rapidly from the eye-watering stench of dust, industrial cleaning fluid, and aftershave. In an effort to distract herself from her burning sinuses, she let her gaze wander, soaking up myriad tiny details hoping to gain insight into the character of the man sitting across the cluttered desk from her. Her gaze fell on the plaque on his desk, a simple triangular wooden block with a plastic name plate, reading ‘Diego Garcia’.

Parole Agent Diego Garcia, she mentally added. Her parole agent. She studied him as he sifted through the pile of paperwork on his desk, an open folder sitting in a little cleared space on his blotter as paperwork, keyboard, mouse, pens, pencils, paperclips -- general chaos -- threatened to cross the little cleared semi-circle. She frowned, wondering at the implied metaphor: her life surrounded by chaos, with only the smallest of artificial buffer zones for protection. She shook her head, pushing the thought out of her mind as she sought distractions to keep the thought from creeping back in. She looked up at the wall behind him, studying the line of framed degrees on display, along with several citations of merit.

Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, UC Berkeley.

Bachelor of Arts, Criminal Justice, UC Berkeley.

Master of Science, Criminology, University of Pennsylvania.

She swallowed hard, momentarily overawed, “He must have wanted to be a parole guy since high school,” she murmured, then froze when he looked up. “Sorry, I was just looking at your wall -- at your pictures -- degrees on your wall, and was just” babbling like an idiot “thinking out loud.”

She coughed, blood rushing to her face, “Maybe a little too loud.”

He smiled absently as he looked back down, his scrutiny of her paperwork leaving her feeling as though she was suffering through a particularly thorough doctor’s exam. She wanted to simultaneously check the buttons on her blouse and take a very long, very hot shower. He was swarthy, middle aged but fit -- perhaps a little bit too sedentary for his own good. His black hair was cut short, though it was starting to go prematurely white; perhaps the contrast made the white more visible. He was only average height, but somewhat muscular and broad shouldered, his blue chambray work shirt pulling ever so slightly tight over his shoulders.

Nicolette had the sudden urge to scatter his paperclips on the floor, or run her fingers through his hair. She fought to suppress nervous giggles at the mental image of Agent Garcia’s hair standing at all angles, struggling to keep her composure at the inappropriate absurdity of the thought. She desperately wanted to break the feeling of solemnity the whole proceeding had, to mitigate the fear engendered by that solemnity. Anything to make Garcia seem more human and less...institutional. It was that last which filled her with fear -- the idea that he was merely an instrument of an institution which regarded her as insignificant; she was just a thing to be shuffled back and forth and discarded with unthinking indifference should circumstances beyond her control warrant it, like a bent paperclip shuffled from one end of the desk to the other until it was finally tossed in the wastebasket when it became a nuisance. Only in her case, it was back to prison instead of the wastebasket...though she supposed one could argue there wasn’t much difference.

She folded her hands in her lap to keep them from visibly shaking, her earlier nervous mischief gone.

She watched his lips moving as he subvocalized some of the paperwork he was reading. She was momentarily fascinated by the way his pencil-thin mustache seemed to exaggerate the movement of his lips. She briefly wondered whether his lips would be soft or if his mustache would tickle. Whether he’d be fun to kiss.

Jesus Nikki, she thought, he’s old enough to be your father! Down girl!

She shook her head, forcibly pushing the thought away, painfully conscious that her desperation to humanize P.O. Garcia drove the inappropriateness of her thoughts. She doubted he saw her as anything other than an inconvenience; something to be managed, perhaps, but never quite making the transition from something to someone. Unfortunately, once acknowledged, the thought stubbornly refused to go away. She found herself wondering what she would do if he made an advance, if allowing it would help her or hurt her.

She took a deep breath, forcing her fear back as she realized she was seriously debating whether she would be willing to prostitute herself to stay out of prison. So far, Garcia had given no indication he was that kind of man.

Let It go, she told herself, you’re borrowing trouble. The only thing going on here is that you’re scared spitless and writing horror stories for yourself as a result.

He nodded as if unconsciously agreeing with her thoughts, then closed the folder resting in its little window of calm, “Let’s talk about you and your situation. You’ve reviewed the terms of your parole?” He paused long enough for her to nod before continuing, “Good. I see some really promising things in your file -- things which I don’t see often; you joined a substance abuse program, you sought out counseling, you got your GED and managed to get an AS degree as well.”

“Biology, from Chaffey.”

He nodded absently as he continued, “That takes hard work and dedication.”

She sat back, surprised at the implied compliment, listening for a ‘but’ in his words; she was disconcerted when she couldn’t find one. He studied her expressionlessly, watching the emotions playing across her countenance, “That’s a good foundation we can build on, see if we can set you up to get through your time on paper as painlessly as possible.”

She nodded, studying him, wondering what his angle was. She felt a weary sort of surprise as she realized that it might just be possible his intentions could be trusted, that his interests and hers might coincide.

He smiled, despite puzzled lines appearing on his forehead, “You seem surprised.”

She nodded, suddenly finding speech eluding her.

“Miss Cooper -- may I call you Nicolette?”

“Nikki is fine,” she murmured hoarsely.

“Nikki...you’re young, intelligent, a hard worker -- you have all the tools necessary to succeed. We just...”

His voice trailed away as the impact of his words registered. He wondered if Miss Cooper’s tears were a good sign or a bad one.

A good sign, he decided, as he offered her the tissue box which normally lived on his desk. It wasn’t common that his clients reacted so emotionally, but he liked to be prepared. Of course, Nicolette Cooper wasn’t very representative of the type of clients that he usually saw -- he could probably count the number that had earned Associate’s Degrees while incarcerated on his hands with fingers left over. He waited patiently for Nikki to regain her composure.

She smiled apologetically, crumpling a damp tissue in her hand, embarrassed at her display of emotion. The tension and fear had been building since her release; by the time she knocked on his door, her composure had been paper thin.

The conversation she’d had with Daniel’s mother, Ramona, hadn’t helped, she reflected ruefully; two days later, she still felt bruised and torn from their exchange. The bitter knowledge that Ramona’s anger was at least partly justified had left her feeling stripped bare and defenseless against her words.

I’m going to make this right, she thought, determinedly pushing aside her discouragement. I don’t know how, yet…but I will.

She met Garcia’s measuring gaze with a tremulous, embarrassed smile.

“I’m sorry,” she finally continued, “It’s been a trying couple of days.”

He nodded sympathetically, giving her a moment to regain her composure before continuing. He became businesslike and professional as he caught her eyes with his own, “Let’s talk about your living arrangements. I spoke with your father, and it sounds like he wants to help out.”

Nicolette nodded, struggling with her conflicting feelings; gratitude that she would have her own place to stay, frustration that she should need her father’s help, rage and disappointment that he would take the easy way out and buy her off despite her earlier refusal of his help, pain at his implicit rejection.

So like Dad, she thought bitterly, always good at finding the middle ground between his obligations with a minimum of personal involvement. And he says I’m not a good influence?, she thought indignantly, her pain and wounded pride competing for space in her emotional landscape. Where were you when Mother was being insane? What were you doing when your eldest daughter ran away from home to get away from that lunatic? How does taking the brunt of Mother’s insane plans and abuse for seventeen years make me a bad influence?

Stupid motherfucker, she thought, feeling her resentful rage rise up. He probably paid for Bea and Stuart’s college. What help do I get from my ‘family’? A bribe to stay away.

She knew it was irrational, but she felt as though she was getting more support from a man who was likely more interested in sending her back to prison. How messed up is that?, she thought, her lip curling in a snarl.

She was startled when Garcia spoke, then a little embarrassed as she wondered what her expression must look like...and how long he’d been studying her, “Nikki... For now, let’s take advantage of the offer. It’s a really good place to start rebuilding; finding work is going to be tough -- with your work history, morality clauses are going to present some serious obstacles in addition to your parole, and your father’s help can give us more time. We can discuss alternative arrangements once you’ve had time to get settled.”

“Okay?” he promoted when she didn’t immediately answer.

Fighting to keep her lips from trembling, she nodded, not trusting her voice.

“Good. I’ll visit and do a walk through once you move in.”

She sighed, resentfully wishing her father spent more time talking with her than her parole officer.

She added, “They’re doing some renovations at the cottage, so…”

He nodded, “Your father mentioned that. We can work out intermediate arrangements, but we need to get you out of the hostel; it’s not a great place for you. Let’s go over your release plan…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Potential Energy

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five: Art Therapy

 

DANIEL studied the mass of copper wire on the work table before him. He flipped back the polarized face shield to get a clearer view of the piece. His studio was chilly, the air almost cool enough to turn his breath to mist. Thankfully, the heavy, long sleeved jacket which protected him from welding spatter kept him warm while he worked. The piece had started life as a car radio which he had mounted on a steel plate. He had subsequently added bits of wire bent into long curving organic shapes, then mixed in other metallic wrack. As it neared completion, it became suggestive of the ocean floor and graceful rhythmic movement. Daniel liked the juxtaposition of life and movement with bits of static and inflexible metal.

He had pulled the radio from a Pick-n-Pull some weeks before while scouting for a new project car that he and his brother could work on. He had spotted it while walking between rows of discarded, rusting vehicles, half pulled out of the dash console of an old and decaying Mustang, the exposed wiring suggestive of an internal organ brutally avulsed from the car’s insides. The mental image had left him nauseous and shaky, heart hammering in his chest as he struggled with the need to escape from a threat which rationally he knew didn’t exist.

As he struggled to get his breathing under control, his VA therapist’s words had come back to him, a calming mantra smoothing over the turbulent seethe of his emotions, seeding his imagination to incorporate the experience into his art. He had forced himself pull it free, working patiently and methodically, the physical activity calming him further, the seeds of his creativity already germinating. That had been more than a month ago; it had been gathering dust in the back of his workshop since then, little more than a nascent idea which had been momentarily forgotten.

He frowned, trying to recall what had drawn his attention back to it, had made the idea alive in his imagination once more. He sat back, his tools forgotten as he traced the creative thread through his afternoon until the dream from the night before surfaced, dream-memories of light and water filling his mind…

 

[_ ...as the setting sun broke apart into a dazzling display of sparkles scattered over the surface of the ocean. It was still too bright to look at directly, but if Daniel tilted his head slightly, his polarized sunglasses revealed very faint bands of color streaking wide swathes of the ocean around the dazzling display. There was a chilly wind blowing in off the ocean, bringing with it the smell of brine and the occasional hint of salt mist as the waves shattered themselves against the rocks into sprays of white foam. The day was extraordinarily clear, with only the faintest hint of haze far out over the water. He and Nicolette sat on a misshapen boulder, a quarter of a mile from the concrete and steel stairway which led from the cliff tops down onto the beach. They had walked as far as they reasonably could, seeking some measure of solitude from the other beachgoers. Most were tourists staying at the Ritz a little ways up the coast. Only a very small handful were out in the ocean -- the Bay Area coastal waters were far too chilly for casual beachgoers. _]

[_ The boulder they sat on was oddly shaped, only passably suitable for a lengthy stay. He had willingly volunteered the flatter portion of their stony perch for Nicolette’s use, valiantly sitting on the oddly shaped side. They had been sitting for the better part of half an hour, mostly in silence as they watched the sun set. The muscles of his left leg were on fire -- the oddly shaped perch forced him to rely on his left leg to keep his balance. _]

Nicolette sighed as she abruptly pointed beyond the breaking waves. He squinted, making out several dark points just beyond the rough, disturbed foam, arrowing left to right. When he didn’t immediately reply, she dropped her arm and exclaimed, “Sea otters!”

[_ He could hear the smile of pleasure in her voice, bringing an answering smile in response. Unconsciously, he tightened his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer. He was rewarded when Nicolette snaked her left arm around his back, feeling immediate warmth from her skin through his t-shirt. Her resultant sigh of contentment made the chilly air and burning pain of his left thigh seem almost immaterial (not to mention the resultant fight to keep from shivering -- he’d loaned her his jacket when she started shivering; while he didn’t exactly regret giving it up, he was definitely feeling the cooling evening air through his t-shirt). _]

She broke into his reverie, “You’re really hurting, aren’t you?”

[_ Daniel chuckled, having long since habituated himself to her uncanny ability to deduce the bent of his thoughts, “Nah. Just trying to figure out what color you’d call that -- out there, on the edges.” _]

“Rosette.”

He frowned as he pulled back, reading her expression as he challenged, “That’s…not even a color.”

He watched as the corner of her mouth pulled up into a smile, “According to Mary Kay, it is.”

“Mary… your nail polish?”

“Lip gloss.”

“That hardly counts.”

He couldn’t keep from laughing, then laughing harder when she pinched his side with her nails, making him jump with surprise. He chuckled good-naturedly, “Ordinarily I’d make you pay for that, but I’m enjoying this sunset too much.”

They watched in contented silence, listening to the thunder of breaking waves. He watched as Nicolette smiled when a particularly big wave broke, the vibrations of its passing felt through the sand underfoot. He was surprised at the sudden surge of emotion he felt as he studied her profile, her hand tightening unconsciously on his thigh as she intuitively sensed his emotion.

“Without you here it wouldn’t…” his voice trailed off as he struggled to find words.

Her smile faded as she heard the change in timbre in his voice.

“Are you being maudlin?” she asked, a slight quiver in her voice giving the lie to her teasing.

“Of course not!”

“You don’t even know what maudlin means!” she countered.

“I do too!”

“What does it mean, then?”

“It means you’re talking too much!”

She smirked, “What are you going to do about it?”

He leaned in and kissed her, enjoying her little sigh of pleasure as she leaned into him, his arm tightening in response. Her lipgloss tasted faintly sweet, but beyond that, he could taste and smell her, which excited him more. She made another small murmur in her throat as they briefly lost track of time.

When he finally pulled away an eternity later, she breathlessly murmured, “You have such a way with words.”

“I know,” he responded, a little breathless himself but struggling to hide it.

They sat in silence, watching as the sun’s lower edge reached the water, igniting the surface of the ocean into myriad diamonds and citrons.

“Dan…I wouldn’t be here without you…there just wouldn’t be much point. I mean…with everything that’s happened…whatever happens…”

Daniel’s brow furrowed as he heard the throb of strong emotion in her voice, a sudden nameless unease sweeping through him, his grip tightening in response, “Nikki, do you know how much I love you?”

She sighed, several moments passing as she waited for her voice to return, “I think I do, yeah. I love you, Daniel. And thank you.”

He unconsciously pulled away again, surprised to see her eyes filled with unshed tears, “For what?”

In response, she stared blindly out over the water, watching as the last fiery rim of the sun began easing below the distant ocean horizon, watching the light dimming, “For being like the rocks out in the ocean.”

He hesitated before attempting to introduce a little levity, “Wet?”

She shook her head, ignoring the humor in his tone, her gaze still abstracted, “For being impervious to my bullshit, like the rocks way out there in the ocean don’t even notice the waves.”

They sat in silence for a time, watching the sun dip below the horizon.

He struggled to find something to say in response, unsure where the emotion was coming from, his wordless unease swelling.

“Nikki…”

She punched him lightly in his ribs, then laughed at his confused expression, “C’mon. It’s cold…and if your leg doesn’t stop shaking, I’m going to start feeling seasick.”

 

Eight years ago, he thought, Almost to the day. He shook his head in irritation that the calculation still came to him so effortlessly.

Did she know?, he wondered. Had she already decided she was going to leave?

A moment passed as he replayed the memory, analyzing it, searching for answers…as if he hadn’t been replaying it fruitlessly for years. He shook his head, It just doesn’t make any sense.

He pushed the memory aside.

This is pointless, he decided, my mind just isn’t in it today.

Normally, losing himself in the creative process -- exploring the memories and feelings of his time in Afghanistan with something creative -- was something that just happened. Today, though...from his first moment of waking his day had drifted by, his hours filled with nameless anticipation. He felt as though something around him had inexplicably shifted, that the changed landscape threatened to bring alien stimuli, things that he wasn’t yet equipped to handle. It left him on edge, impatient. Daniel accepted that change was an inevitable part of life, but throughout his life, he’d found that change and disaster were inextricably linked -- the bigger the change, the greater the likelihood those changes were catastrophic; his father’s dying, Nikki leaving, Daniel enlisting in the Army...Afghanistan.

Daniel sighed, deciding this line of thought wasn’t helping. He began putting everything away; perhaps tomorrow would be better.

When Dane arrived, Daniel had been sitting idle for nearly half an hour, pensive and unsettled. Dane glanced around Daniel's small workshop; it was little more than a rectangular, concrete-floored storage unit. Daniel had gone to great lengths to convert it to a comfortable creative space with the addition of shelves and storage space for his tools, a long workbench covered with metal shavings and sawdust -- not to mention several projects in various stages of completion. He had even added a small refrigerator filled with beer and snacks. Dane leaned around the open doorway, finding Daniel sitting with a beer in his hands, clearly lost in thought. He hesitated, taking a moment to assess Daniel's mood. They had an implicit understanding -- Dane was always welcome (Dane owned the storage unit, after all), but Daniel reserved the right to ignore him if he was working on a project. A slow smile spread across his features as he studied Daniel, bringing a twinkle to his brown eyes.

“Hard at work?”

Daniel looked up, startled. Dane grinned, his perfectly even, white teeth contrasting with his carefully maintained tan. He projected an air of easy-going indolence, but Daniel knew that his happy indifference was an affectation hiding his driven, hard working character. Dane was almost painfully earnest in his desire to be liked, though he had an innate charisma that made it easy to like him. Daniel suspected Dane had been something of a player before he’d met Shelly; he had probably snared her with his boyish good looks and easy-going charm, but Daniel suspected Dane was the one more firmly caught.

Daniel chuckled, shaking his head, “Just not feeling it tonight.”

“Thinking about Carla?”

Daniel’s smile became slightly forced as he hesitated, then shook his head.

“No. We texted a couple times today, but I think she was more worried about me than…” he trailed off, unsure how to finish. Carla had been the latest in his long line of failed relationships. They had been close, often thinking on the same wavelength, sometimes able to complete each other’s sentences (like he and Nikki used to). But for all the implied closeness and intimacy, they had also reinforced each other in less constructive ways. His temper had always been a bit of a wild card, but since he’d left the Army, it had seemed much closer to the surface, something he was constantly struggling to manage. With Carla, he often felt out of control, frustratingly at the mercy of his emotions. She had always seemed darkly gleeful when she could goad him until he lost it, especially when he turned his rage on her. Though their fights were legendary, they seemed to end up in the bedroom more often than not.

It had been his longest relationship since (Nikki left) high school, and probably the most intense, but their mutually reinforced pathos often left him feeling sick and helpless in the aftermath of their lovemaking. That had been their pattern for the majority of their relationship, their dark chemistry shared almost from the moment they met after a show at the Cobra Room.

Recently something had shifted in him, in both of them if he was being honest. He couldn’t clearly pinpoint what had precipitated that shift; three weeks ago he recalled waking up feeling calm and relaxed, reflecting that he and Carla hadn’t had a real knock-down fight in several weeks -- their longest dormant period since they had first started dating. Their most recent dustup had been little more than a desultory exchange of barbs before they both stormed out of Carla’s apartment. He had been mildly surprised at his relief that they hadn’t ended up in bed.

The dormant period almost ended when they had gotten into it over breakfast some weeks ago, Carla lapsing into one of her moods, seemingly determined to goad him until he snapped. After deflecting her barbs for nearly a quarter of an hour, he realized that he wasn’t going to snap. It had seemed like the will to continue the argument drained out of them. Perhaps sensing the mood was unexpectedly slipping away, she had said something particularly cutting about his neediness and desperation…and it had suddenly struck him as funny, funny that she would single out his need when their whole relationship was built on co-dependent desperation. Their eyes had met from across the room, and as if by mutual decree had burst out laughing. In that instant, he knew their relationship was over, that perhaps something positive might have happened despite the pathos, the relationship allowing some bitter poison to finally work its way out of his system.

Two days later, she announced she was moving to Seattle, and that he wasn’t invited -- typical of her impulsiveness. He was surprised to realize that he genuinely wished her well, feeling only a slight pang of sorrow they were parting ways.

They had retired to the bedroom and made love the way real people do, with humor and playful passion, in stark contrast to the snarling anger and bruising hostility that usually drove their encounters.

He had moved out that afternoon, crashing at The Summer Cottage -- Dane’s home up in the hills -- until he found a place of his own.

Dane grinned, intuiting some of Daniel's thoughts as he wandered over to the small cube-fridge that Daniel kept in the back of his art studio. He retrieved a bottle labeled with a dwarf in a red hat -- one of the Belgians Dane had stocked it with in a spontaneous moment of generosity.

He studied the label intently as he asked, “Worried? How come?” The question was framed casually, but the effort he expended to appear casual ruined the effect. Daniel couldn’t keep himself from grinning as he sipped his own beer.

“I don’t know. I’ve been feeling kind of… out of sorts since I got out of bed this morning.” He shook his head, chuckling with rueful amusement as he added, “Somehow she still knows.”

Dane nodded thoughtfully, “She always did have a knack for hitting you,” he coughed, changing the thought mid sentence, “for knowing when you were feeling down.”

Daniel grinned perfunctorily, then shook his head, implicitly declining to resume their long running argument about Carla. He wasn’t willing to admit that Dane had been right…at least, not out loud.

“No, nothing like that. No dreams or anything either, just… A feeling. I don’t know. I did have a dream, but I’m not sure which was the cause.”

Dane frowned thoughtfully, studying Daniel briefly. “Why don’t you come to the club? Get a couple drinks or something, listen to the band Ron booked.”

Daniel frowned, feeling ambivalence, not really wanting the company, but suddenly feeling the need to break his routine.

Dane, mistaking his reticence for a search for a graceful refusal added, “Shelly was able to get away from her studies tonight -- she sent me over here looking for you. You know how she gets.”

Daniel laughed at the exaggeratedly hopeful expression Dane put on, “Yeah -- I know how Shelly gets; mother hen, etc. She’s got you whipped, man.”

Dane shrugged, unimpressed, letting the comment pass, “For some reason, she’s adopted you as kind of a personal project.”

Daniel laughed, his anticipatory gloom abating slightly, “Sure, buddy. Let me lock up here and we can walk over together.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six: Wind Change

 

THEY stepped into the cool evening, walking through the small industrial area in one of Half Moon Bay’s neighboring cities. Daniel’s workspace had been loaned to him after he’d left the security job at Dane’s club. It had been a stepping stone in his path to recovery from his military service, an intermediate resting place while he mentally recuperated. Eventually Daniel had felt bored and frustrated, finding the job wasn’t meeting his growing sense of restlessness as he began thinking about his future. By the time he had left, they had struck up an unexpected friendship, making Dane’s offer of the storage space as an art studio more natural than Daniel would have anticipated. Dane had originally been using it as a storage space for his club, but increasingly was using it as a dumping ground for all the left over junk from the club’s construction and subsequent renovations. The original terms of the lease had included cleaning out all of the junk and separating out the things that might actually have use or value, a project Dane had expected to occupy Daniel for several weeks. He had been genuinely surprised when Daniel had finished clearing out and outfitting the space in a little more than a week.

The Cobra Room, the club Dane had opened using his father’s money and Dane’s own Yale MBA was only a couple of blocks from the storage space (in truth, the Cobra Room was little more than a dressed up storage space itself). Dane had made it a habit to check for Daniel’s light green Ford every time he arrived at the club and, if time allowed, often stopped by to socialize. It had become a habit they both looked forward to as a means of breaking up the day (though it usually heralded the end of Daniel’s work day and the beginning of Dane’s).

They walked the quarter mile, Daniel’s leg complaining very slightly from the exercise. His physical therapist would probably be pleased, he thought, when she found out that he was at least nominally trying to follow her recovery plan. It had been a long time, but he was finally feeling as though his leg was approaching full strength.

Bullets do messed up things to flesh, he reflected, feeling the faint ache in his calf.

“What are you grinning about?”

Daniel looked up, momentarily nonplussed as he realized Dane had been studying him during his silence. He shook his head, his grin turning into a chuckle, “I was just remembering something the PT specialist -- Rebecca -- said last week.”

Dane frowned thoughtfully, “Rebecca? The Latina? You think you might date her?”

Daniel shook his head, “Probably not. We started to get close, but kind of called it quits last week. I’m still seeing her to help with my leg, though; she’s good at what she does.”

Dane chuckled, but to Daniel’s relief, declined further comment.

They paused at the intersection before crossing into the club’s parking lot. The Cobra Room was a small club, closely modeled after the Viper Room in Los Angeles; it was, quite literally, a single rectangular room with a stage in the middle of one of the short walls. Daniel reflected that, if the club looked as though it was a couple of storage spaces joined together and repurposed as a bar/nightclub, well…that’s what it was. The parking lot was only half full, but once the live music started, it tended to get busy, crushingly so if Don (the club manager Dane had managed to import from San Diego) booked a particularly good band.

As they approached the main entrance, Daniel paused to greet Dominique. Dom was the bouncer Dane had hired to replace Daniel. He was only an inch or so shorter than Daniel’s 5’11”, but he had the physique of a professional weight-lifter, filling out the club’s black security t-shirt. Daniel knew Dom was trying to break into the professional MMA circuit, but was still struggling to get his big break. Dom was comfortably settled at his post at the head of a long empty velvet rope line stretching along the club’s wall.

Dom grinned in greeting as he caught sight of Daniel, his teeth contrasting with his dark skin, “Daniel -- what’s going on?”

Daniel grinned back as they shook hands then bumped fists, “Nothing man, just thought I’d come back and see what I was missing.”

Dom smirked, “No doubt, no doubt. It’s quiet, yet. How’s,” he hesitated, “Carmen? Darla?”

Daniel suppressed a sigh as he shook his head, “Carla. I guess we sort of decided we weren’t as mutually messed up as we used to be and there wasn’t any point to continuing.”

Dom nodded sagely, “That’s…sounds about right.”

Daniel laughed as he stepped past Dom, “I’ve been hearing that a lot.”

Dom shrugged sympathetically, “I know you guys were tight. Gimme a call, man -- we’ll do a workout or something.”

Daniel chuckled as he glanced over his shoulder, “You bet, Dom!”

Dom laughed as he turned back to his duties. Daniel suspected sparring with Dom probably wouldn’t end well for himself, but he didn’t mind getting schooled on the mat if he learned something as a result. He could use the exercise and he’d found Dom was a good training partner who clearly understood the difference between training and competing. Besides…Daniel wasn’t totally unskilled, and he suspected he could make it challenging for both of them. Somewhat challenging, at least.

He passed through the entrance of the club, quickening his pace to catch up to Dane. The inside was mostly painted black with green and blue points of laser light tracking across the ceiling as canned music poured through the club’s speakers, filling the space. The stage was still empty, but he could see the opening band just arriving and starting to set up. It wasn’t very busy yet, but Daniel noted the extra security and the bartender manning the second bar; Don (short for Donald, he added mentally -- a habit he’d picked up after confusing Dom and Don to Shelly’s enormous amusement over Midnight Margaritas at Dane’s home) -- Don must have gotten a good act.

As his eyes swept the bar, he paused as he recognized Tommy -- one of his oldest friends. Tommy had moved in just down the street from Daniel a little more than a decade ago (three years before Nicolette left). He winced at the thought; seven years gone and he still made the calculation automatically from the day she’d left. He felt a moment of helpless anger and disappointment, but quickly quashed the line of thought. It was over. He had moved on.

He felt a moment of grim satisfaction at the speed with which he quashed the thought.

He tapped Dane on the shoulder to get his attention then nodded toward the bar as he changed direction to settle next to Tommy.

Dane grinned, exclaiming, “I found him!” which brought an answering grin from Tommy

“ Yo Tommy -- what’s the word, buddy?”

Tommy grinned then shrugged, adding a grunt for emphasis before half turning to the bartender. He tapped the bar with his index and middle finger. The bartender, halfway across the bar looked up and nodded in response. Daniel could never figure out how he did that, how such a physically unassuming man could command attention like that, like flipping a switch on and off again. Daniel studied Tommy out of the corner of his eye, taking in his slightly above average height, wild spiky black hair, and slight frame topped by a bright red baseball cap with a white embroidered eagle. He was rarely without his ball cap, sometimes leading Daniel to wonder in his more absurd moments of fancy if that hat was actually part of his head. Daniel exchanged a friendly smile with the bartender, a statuesque blonde named Jillian, as she returned with a whiskey for Daniel and a Guinness for Tommy -- though he noted Jillian hadn’t brought anything for Dane. So Dane anticipated a busy night.

“Sorry about Carla, Daniel -- that’s a tough break!”

He looked up in surprise, meeting Jillian’s sympathetic gaze, “Yeah. It’s not that bad -- it was just time, you know?”

She nodded in sympathy, absently patting his arm as her attention was called elsewhere.

Daniel glanced around the club, taking in the sparse crowd before turning toward Dane, “Where’s Shelly? You said she was here tonight?”

Dane nodded, “Yeah -- she has some things to take care of, so she dropped me off. We’ll probably head out for dinner later, once it looks like things are rolling along.” His gaze flicked back and forth between Daniel and Tommy, “You guys are welcome to join us -- though you’ll have to take your own cars there.”

Daniel felt his eyebrows rising in surprise, “She’s driving the T?”

Dane laughed, “She loves driving that thing. Go figure.”

“What’s not to like about driving a two hundred thousand dollar car to pick up groceries from the Safeway?”

“She’s a better driver than me -- especially when she’s driving it.”

Tommy cocked his head to the side as he favored Dane with a skeptical frown.

“Bite me, T, it also happens to be true!” He nodded toward Daniel, “I have to check in with Don -- but when Shells gets back, we can head out.”

Dane caught Jillian’s eye, then nodded meaningfully toward Tommy and Daniel. She raised her hand in acknowledgment, leading Tommy and Daniel to exchange a grin: free drinks!

“What do you think?”

Tommy shrugged then added reluctantly, “S’Dane’s Ferrari,” implying that he could do whatever crazy thing he wanted with it.

Daniel nodded thoughtfully, “Yeah.”

 

An hour later, Daniel was slightly buzzed, listening to ‘Atrium’, a band that was a strange cross between Morcheeba and Muse. He was ambivalent to their music, but the crowd seemed enthusiastic -- it had filled out considerably since Dane left. He sat with his back to the bar, taking in the scene, tracking the ebb and flow of the crowd. He frowned as his sense of combined dread and anticipation returned, causing him to scan the crowd again. He had hoped it was just his Gremlins -- a term coined by one of his ex-squadmates to describe the aftereffects of prolonged combat: PTSD, basically. Daniel knew he’d brought back a barrelful of them from Afghanistan, but nevertheless considered himself lucky; he’d met a couple of guys that had brought back full-on Werewolves, one of whom had added a monkey to his retinue of troubles in the hope the monkey would take up more space than his other passengers. It didn’t seem to have helped him very much.

He was restless. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was waiting for something, for some existential change to facilitate … whatever it was he intuitively sensed coming. He had hoped the alcohol and activity in the club would distract him, allowing the feeling to fade once his attention was elsewhere. Early on it had, but his prolonged inactivity was starting to wear on him. He jumped as Jillian tapped him on the shoulder.

He turned, smiling quizzically, meeting her apologetic gaze.

She leaned forward, raising her voice to be heard over the music, almost shouting in his ear, “Hey, Casanova! Feel up to some charity work?”

He half turned so he could see her eyes, wondering if she was making fun of him. She was grinning, her lip gloss very red against her pale skin even in the relative darkness of the club, but he saw something in her expression that wasn’t joking. He leaned forward, “I’m up for some pro bono work! What’s going on?”

She nodded toward the end of the bar, “Kayla -- down by the end! With the guy wearing all the bling!”

Daniel leaned around the crowd, scanning the other patrons until his eyes fell on a girl sitting at the far end of the bar. Sitting next to her was a man with dark, slicked-back hair, his half open shirt revealing a heavy gold chain. He spoke animatedly with a pretty woman in a tight green dress and low heels, his rings sparkling with his movements. Her body language radiated discomfort as she smiled politely, nodding whenever he paused to emphasize a point. She unconsciously leaned away when he leaned closer to make himself heard over the music. Daniel studied them a moment, instantly disliking the tableau. She seemed out of place, her clothes more suited to a formal dinner party than a club like the Cobra Room when they had live music. It seemed unfair to him that this guy -- clearly someone far more experienced with the club scene -- would take advantage of her inexperience.

He turned to Jillian, annoyed that she wouldn’t just call security, but her hopeful expression brought him up short. He realized she was worried that calling security might be an overreaction; if she started asking security to throw out people that weren’t actually causing trouble she could find herself without a job. Of course, Daniel suspected Dane would likely shrug it off, preferring to trust his employees’ judgement, but Jillian didn’t know Dane as well as Daniel did and wasn’t willing to take the risk. He sighed, then nodded, smiling in response as she broke into a relieved grin. He pushed off the stool, heading over to the end of the bar. When he sidled up to Kayla and Bling, they both looked up in surprise as he bellowed, “Kaye! We’ve been looking for you!”

He nodded meaningfully toward the bartender, “Jillian told me where to find you!”

The girl jumped off the stool, swaying slightly. Bling’s hand slid off her knee as she stood. Her expression flooded with gratitude and relief, “Finally!” she exclaimed, falling immediately into her role.

She’s quick, this one, he thought with amusement, despite being more than a little drunk.

Bling started to stand as well, annoyance painting his features, but his eyes flicked to Daniel’s right. He hesitated, then immediately settled back onto his barstool and spun around, hunching down over his drink.

Ah…Tommy must have followed me.

Sometimes Tommy had that effect on people.

He stepped back, motioning for Kayla to precede him. Tommy fell into step behind them, pausing to grin at Bling’s back. Daniel was relieved when Bling hunched further into his drink, choosing to let them go.

Daniel was surprised to find their empty seats waiting for them, along with a fresh drink on the bar.

He turned to Kayla, a medium height brown haired woman he estimated to be close to his own age. He offered his seat to her, then asked (well, bellowed really) “Where are your people?”

She shook her head, chagrin filling her expression, “No idea! They were supposed to be here almost an hour ago!”

He nodded, “You’re welcome to hang with us while you wait…”

She nodded vigorously, then laughed when Jillian brought her a drink to replace the one she’d abandoned, “You guys are my newest besties!”

His smile faltered as memories of another rescue came to mind, her words eerily similar to something Shelly had once said. He mused briefly how life sometimes seemed to move in circles, sometimes presenting you with choices along the way to reaffirm or repudiate earlier decisions. He felt a brief rush of gratitude as he realized a part of himself that he thought might have been lost in Afghanistan was still there, driving his decisions. He let out a long breath as he realized he still couldn’t stand to see people bullied or victimized, that he was still willing to involve himself, even if it meant risking confrontation. He sipped his drink, his musings momentarily forgotten as he realized Jillian had replaced his original shot of affordable whiskey with something from the top shelf.

He looked up in surprise, finding Jillian watching him, a small secretive smile crossing her lips. As their eyes met, she winked at him then silently mouthed Thank you!

He smiled back, raising his glass to her, listening to Kayla explaining excitedly about her teaching job and how that had led to her waiting for her friends in the Cobra Room.

 

He was leaning against the bar, desultorily listening to the music when his restlessness abruptly became unbearable. He had stopped drinking some time ago, letting his buzz fade away while he waited. The smell of the club -- myriad colognes and perfumes, the smell of the smoke from the atmospheric smoke machines, spilled beer, too many bodies packed into a such tight, warm space -- suddenly made him claustrophobic and desperate to move. He had Kayla’s number, but he doubted he’d follow up -- under the circumstances it felt too much like taking advantage of her. Her friends had long since come, but he had politely refused Kayla’s offer to join forces with them; he’d have felt like an intruder in their good time. Her friends had echoed Kayla’s gratitude, but had happily faded into the crowd.

He turned toward Tommy, surprised to find his friend watching him, eyes bright with curiosity. He jerked his head toward the back of the club; Tommy answered with an indifferent shrug. Daniel paused long enough to pull a twenty out of his wallet and place it atop Tommy’s as he signaled Jillian they were leaving. When he finally caught her eye, she smiled gratefully and waved, clearly pleased at the tip. He briefly considered chatting her up in the future, but rejected the idea; he liked the Cobra Room and had found few things ruined a good watering hole like having romantic history with the staff.

He pushed off the bar, skirting the crowd, wincing as the music suddenly began venturing into dubstep territory with persistent head-splitting bass.

Just in time, he thought ruefully as they reached the side exit. The cold air blew the cobwebs in his mind away, bringing clarity and relief from the crowded, claustrophobic interior of the club.

Tommy frowned thoughtfully as they let the door swing closed behind them. As they reached the far end of the parking lot, he raised his heavy black eyebrows.

“Let’s do Harry’s,” he suggested.

Daniel shrugged; the food was decent if a little pricey. He would have preferred the Fishtrap place, but he supposed a little variety wasn’t unwelcome.

They waited in amicable silence for a time, breathing in the sea-salt air, listening to the indistinct thump and rattle of the bass through the sound-proofed walls of the club. Daniel still felt cotton-headed, but the intermittent breeze coming in from the sea had largely eliminated his nausea. He pulled his phone from a jacket pocket and texted Dane, [_ T and I bailed -- still want to do dinner? H’s okay? _]

He waited, still feeling listless and impatient, listening to the muffled bass coming from the club as it changed timbre several times. The sky had fogged over, creating a low lying grey blanket with strange orange highlights where the city lights illuminated the underside of the clouds.

He jumped as his phone vibrated, Definitely, Dane responded. Shells is on the way. Wait 5, and we can all go. S likes Harry’s.

Tommy was facing the ocean, his head cocked to the side, reminding Daniel of the RCA dog, listening. Something about his posture spoke of anticipation and wariness.

“T -- you feel it, too?”

Tommy turned, eyeing Daniel consideringly before looking back toward the black line of the ocean. He nodded slowly, his voice thoughtful, “Yeahhh.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven: The Learning Curve

 

NICOLETTE stood at the podium, tapping her fingers impatiently. It was a Friday night and Harry’s had been busy -- very busy -- but business had finally begun to taper. She’d only been on shift since 6, but coupled with her morning shift at Coffee Beach, her feet had long ago graduated from merely whining to remorselessly barking. She hoped she could get home before they started... she frowned as she briefly wondered what came after ‘barking’. Howling? Baying?

Can feet be described as ‘baying’?, she wondered, chuckling at the thought, then swore under her breath as the dry erase marker nearly rolled off the podium.

An hour, maybe two, and I’m done, she thought.

She looked forward to putting her feet up, even if it was only for a couple of minutes in the staff room before heading home. Of course, she had a shift at Coffee Beach the next morning, so she wasn’t going to get much free time. Or sleep, for that matter. She was adjusting to her schedule, but the long hours, coupled with irregular breaks left her exhausted.

At least at Coffee Beach she had a sympathetic coworker -- Paula Richetti, a high energy blonde just finishing her teens. Paula’s dry wit and scandalous asides made the morning shift pass far more quickly than Nikki would have believed. They usually had a short window of time just before opening where they could talk a little bit, Nikki sometimes giving in to Paula’s playful nature, getting into soda straw knife fights or bowling stacked cups for chocolate-covered espresso beans in the confined space of the coffee shack.

Once people started showing up, there wasn’t much time to relax until the end of the shift. They usually took turns making the drinks and interacting with the customers, but when Nicolette had first started the job, she had forced Paula to let her make all the drinks, giving herself a crash course in using the various machines. Once she’d started to get the hang of it, she relented, giving Paula a chance to hide in the background and take a break from the customers. Though taking orders was the less difficult job, it required interaction with the customers, a task which they both found surprisingly exhausting -- though it was a little harder on Paula than Nicolette.

She shook her head ruefully, Bikini barista is not the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of…but it’s pretty close. Two girls prancing around in bikinis making coffee…it’s probably not the coffee that keeps ‘em coming back, she thought with wry amusement. I guess it was only a matter of time before the male mind found a way to make money by combining naked girls and coffee, she thought, reflecting how silly she had felt at first.

Unfortunately, Paula was quitting the morning shift, leaving Nicolette all by herself in the little coffee shack. She was going to miss having Paula for company while she worked, but ironically, she felt less self-conscious when it was just her and the customers. Without Paula, it felt more like working at the Kitty Kat shortly after moving to Los Angeles, with all the good and bad things that implied…mostly bad. She was willing to admit that she didn’t mind being the center of attention, that being stared at didn’t bother her as much as she supposed it should, but she looked forward to the later steps in her plan when such demeaning work wouldn’t be necessary anymore.

Harry’s was only slightly better. Her job was to, what was it Mr. Solis had said?: ‘Look stylishly winsome and welcoming.’

Both jobs were mostly eye-candy jobs, requiring little beyond standing around and being ogled. At least Coffee Beach kept her constantly in motion, and the tips were pretty good even if the pay wasn’t. Given a choice, Nicolette would have preferred to work almost anywhere else, but as Garcia had warned her, finding work had been challenging -- even with an AS degree in Biology. She was finding the combination of her work history coupled with being a parolee made her almost unemployable with her current education.

One of her first job applications had been for a secretarial job at a small local bank. She hadn’t expected to get the job, but had been genuinely surprised that they’d called back. Unfortunately, it was little more than a courtesy call, the woman at the other end of the line apologetically informing her that her criminal record made hiring her an impossibility. Nicolette had been disappointed, but not terribly surprised; she had applied mostly to show Garcia that she was serious about getting work.

After a long series of applications brought no response, she’d finally heard back from the pet store. She had been excited at the prospect of working with animals, even if it was only a small part of the job description. She had been surprised when the manager -- a balding, middle aged man named Roger -- had offered her the job, though he made it clear her criminal record made him nervous. She had settled in, working long hours doing whatever needed doing for minimum wage -- less, really, because she often worked after her shift was over, partially as a means of impressing Roger, but also because the staff was lazy and often left jobs half finished. It had always been a compulsion of hers -- if something needed doing she wouldn’t hesitate to take matters into her own hands. Roger had gradually relaxed, eventually leaving her to her duties without constantly checking up on her.

That had lasted until the kid.

He had been a lanky teenager, red-headed and energetic. He had stared at her, eyes wide, probably convincing himself that he wasn’t seeing things after he’d recognized her. It was a look she had come to instinctively recognize, and lately had come to dread. Eventually he had nerved himself up to walk over and ask for her autograph. It was an old instinct; to show fans she appreciated them, chatting with them if they were polite -- which most were -- and signing autographs if asked. She knew it had been a mistake from the moment she’d agreed, though realistically, it wouldn’t have mattered after he’d recognized her. His mother, a tall woman in a pantsuit and a no-nonsense attitude had been puzzled at her son’s behavior, and pressed him until he explained who Nicolette was and how he knew her -- Nicolette definitely didn’t envy the poor kid for that conversation!

The woman had wasted no time and immediately complained to Roger. Twenty minutes later Nicolette had been on the street, severance check in hand. “Morality clause” he’d explained; children frequented the store, and they couldn’t have someone like her around them, it was bad for the store’s reputation. He had spoken as if the logic was inherently obvious, as if she was somehow contagious.

Someone like me? What does that even mean?, she thought bitterly, still feeling the dull hurt from that conversation. She still couldn’t understand what they thought she was going to do or how she could be a bad influence if she swept floors or picked up after diarrhetic pets. Intellectually, she knew they could’t possibly know her well enough for their opinions about her to matter…but the bruises from their judgements still lingered.

The pet store had hurt, but the job at the vet’s office had hurt worse.

It hadn’t paid very well at all -- it was mostly volunteer work, with a little money as an afterthought. But Nicolette loved working with the animals. She loved helping the interns with them, even when the animals were frightened and uncooperative -- especially then, because she couldn’t stand seeing them in pain, and she found it deeply gratifying when she could proactively do something which alleviated their suffering, leaving them in a better state than she’d found them.

Everyone at the vet’s office respected her innate beside manner, her ability to calm even the most fractious or frightened animals. One of the paid interns, a spunky Latina preparing to apply for veterinary school, had taken to calling her “the cat-whisperer” after Nicolette had deftly handled a Persian with a bad reputation for biting and scratching. The combination of respect she received at the vet’s office, coupled with the actual work had put a spring in her step...for all of four and a half days. How the elderly woman recognized her, Nicolette would never know, but when Nikki saw her speaking with the vet -- Dr. Lin -- their eyes often falling upon Nicolette while they spoke, she’d felt her stomach sink as some foreboding instinct forewarned her.

Sure enough, she’d been called into the doctor’s office fifteen minutes later. It had been the same spiel she’d gotten from Roger: morality clause, check; the children, check; reputation to maintain, check; Nikki somehow damaging it by breathing, check.

Dr. Lin had been apologetic, clearly embarrassed by the whole conversation, but also clearly relieved when Nicolette hadn’t made a fuss and quietly left. Dr. Lin couldn’t afford to lose loyal customers, but Nikki -- an ex-con ex-sex worker, on the other hand...

Nicolette had held her composure until she’d left the office, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of seeing her upset. Later she had cried over the betrayal and disappointment.

By contrast, she hadn’t really wanted the job at Coffee Beach, but had been surprised when Mr. Lewis offered her work despite being an ex-con on parole. After she met Mr. Lewis and learned the nature of the business, her surprise had lessened. Ostensibly, It was a natural fit, after all. She could see the train of thought when she’d met Mr. Lewis: “ex porn star takes off clothes to make money, provides free advertising”...never mind that Nicolette was trying to start over, to rebuild her life here in Half Moon Bay, leaving the film business behind. He had nodded politely while she explained, then offered her the job again, even going so far as to offer her a hiring bonus. Desperate for the money and the stability of a job -- any job -- she’d accepted.

She suspected he’d quietly leaked her stage name -- it would explain the number of guys asking for autographs that had “just realized who she was.” It didn’t bother her, per se -- they’d been generally polite and most tipped well. Some were even politely complimentary, though many of them took her status as an ex-sex worker to flirt outrageously. Even so, she would have preferred anonymity...or even better, work where she didn’t have to take off her clothes. She had intended to quit after she landed a better job...but her subsequent experiences with morality clauses had left her desperate to have at least one reliable gig; regrettably it seemed as though Coffee Beach was going to be it. Garcia had been clear that having a job greatly increased her odds of getting through parole. With that in mind, it didn’t seem prudent to quit until she was sure a new job would stick.

Then she’d landed Harry’s, mostly due to Garcia’s contacts opening the door for her. The interview had been short. The owner -- Mr. Johnston -- had taken one look at her and decided on the spot to hire her. Maybe he was a good judge of character, maybe he recognized a hard worker when he saw one.

She sighed bitterly, Or maybe he made the decision after one look at my ass, because that’s pretty much all I am to him. Or Mr. Lewis, for all his easy Jamaican charm.

She wondered if Mr. Johnston knew anything about her previous career, or if he’d decided he wouldn’t ask until someone (aside from Mr. Solis, at any rate) complained. Maybe she was just being unfairly cynical and he really had hired her for altruistic reasons. Either way, she’d landed the job.

[_ It pays worse than Coffee Beach -- no tips, after all, ] she thought with bitter amusement, [_but at least the hours suck. Two eye candy jobs, almost back to back. Ah, the joys of being an ex-con,] she thought ruefully, and morality clauses…gotta love the morality clauses. I may as well be branded with a scarlet letter of my own.

She pulled at her necklace, briefly considering adding a bright red ’N’ to keep St. Jude company. The pairing seemed fitting; Scarlet Letter presided over by the Patron Saint of Lost Causes.

With a snort of disgust, she mentally flipped off Hester Prynne and her stupid letter, then swore under her breath as the dry erase marker rolled off the side of the podium. It had been doing that all night -- somehow placing itself in line with her elbow or wrist so it could be knocked to the floor at every opportunity. She firmly placed it back in its holder, then glared at it for good measure, “I have a whole box of replacements just itching for your job, pal.”

She checked the restaurant, scanning the tables to see if anything needed doing, then double-checked the seating chart to make sure it was still accurate. She was determined to avoid careless mistakes, to avoid giving Mr. Solis any reason to lecture her. Thankfully, most of her mistakes as she settled into the rhythm of Harry’s had been relatively minor.

She sighed, waiting impatiently for her shift to end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collisions

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight: Strength Limit

 

NICOLETTE surreptitiously checked over her shoulder, scanning the restaurant before pulling her phone from the shelf where she'd stashed it; Mr. Solis, the general manager had an unnerving habit of showing up when least expected. She and Chris had speculated whether there was a hidden surveillance system which Solis pored over, waiting for employees to slack off so he could rush out and lecture them -- seemingly one of his favorite past times.

She stared down at the screen, heart sinking with disappointment when she saw no messages waiting for her. Abruptly she chuckled ruefully at herself -- there was no way (Daniel) anyone could be texting her on this phone, but old hopes die hard. She frowned at the thought, her mind going back to another time, staring at the phone

 

on the kitchen table, waiting for Daniel to call. He hadn’t been at school earlier that day, and hadn’t been responding to her calls or texts. She was worried; it was unlike him to be unresponsive. She looked up, then froze, startled to see Mother standing in the doorway of the kitchen watching her, hanging back in the shadows.

How long as she been there?, she wondered, heart racing.

Mother affected nonchalance as she strode into the kitchen, smiling at her daughter looking away as she passed. Nicolette did a quick survey of the kitchen table, going over a quick mental checklist as she bent her head back to her homework, ostensibly finishing the AP Calc problem set Mrs. Treanor had assigned earlier that afternoon. She tried to put her mind back into a mathematical mood, but lost focus as she heard the whisper of Mother’s slippers on the linoleum behind her. A moment passed before the clatter of dishes allowed Nicolette to relax, the tension easing as Nicolette realized Mother really did have a specific destination in mind.

She glanced through the glass in the back door, longing to be outside in the bright sunlight. Later that afternoon—

She jumped as her phone abruptly buzzed on the counter next to her, the sound making her wince with apprehension, knowing that Mother’s attention had likely been drawn to Nicolette at the sound. Her heart skipped a beat then sank with disappointment when she saw it was only Greg.

“Dan’s dad was in a car wreck.” he texted.

She stared at the screen, uncomprehending. A queer freefalling sensation spread through her chest as she waited, dread shadowing her thoughts.

“I think he died,” he texted.

She reread the message, trying to make sense of the words as her throat constricted, the air suddenly seeming hard to find.

She swore under her breath as her sight blurred

white exploded across her vision, her phone flipping out of her hands. Her hand stole to her cheek in surprise as she found Mother standing over her, expressionless. The phone clattered to the floor, preternaturally loud in the sudden stillness. When Mother was sure Nicolette was listening, she murmured, “That sort of language isn’t welcome in this house, ‘Colette.”

Nikki nodded, her hand dropping back into her lap as she blinked back tears, “Yes, Mother. I’m sorry.”

Rose nodded, seemingly satisfied, turning to leave, the incident already forgotten. The moment she reached the doorway, Nicolette unfroze, bending to pick her phone up off the floor, sighing in relief when she saw it was undamaged. She reread the message, still unable to process it.

Daniel needs me!

It was a feeling more than a thought, an imperative that demanded action. She was at the kitchen door before the thought even registered, rushing out the kitchen door into the backyard. She winced at the bright sunlight, hesitating again when she heard Mother calling her back.

Daniel needs me!, she thought, deliberately closing the door behind her, knowing there would be a heavy price to pay later. She was practically running by the time she hit the fence, struggling with the latch in her haste.

[_ She rushed across the street to the Hayes' home, pulling open the gate, then rushing up the stairs along the side of the house to the elevated living room. She rang the doorbell, then pulled her phone out, texting Daniel that she was at the front door. A moment passed as she waited, listening for the creak of footsteps on the other side of the door. She leaned out over the railing, trying to see around the side of the house to the front driveway -- she couldn't remember if a car had been parked there. _]

She stepped back when the door opened, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the shadowed interior of the house. Daniel stood expressionless before her, dark circles under his eyes. Behind him, the living room stood empty; it was hard to imagine the house without his father’s larger-than-life presence, with his warmth and razor-sharp sense of humor. The house seemed…diminished, somehow, knowing he was gone. It seemed impossible, something too big to grasp, as if it wasn’t real.

I wonder when they got the news, she wondered disjointedly, studying his face.

He was measured and controlled, his voice carefully even, “Now’s not a good time, Nikki.”

“I just got the news,” she said, her voice breaking on the last word, “I’m so sorry.”

He nodded, his expression unchanging, “Thank you. I should get back.”

[_ She studied him, startled when he began to step back into the house. Unthinkingly, instinctively not trusting his calm, she grabbed his shirt, pulling him back toward her. He resisted, but she didn't let go; she knew he was stronger, by far -- that he could probably drag her across the room if he wanted to. But he stopped. They stood poised, momentarily in stasis, her arms starting to quiver against the backward pull. His brow furrowed slightly, something in his expression softening as his resistance lessened. She didn't release his shirt. _]

“Your nose is bleeding.”

“Your dad is dead.”

His jaw clenched, lips tightening to hide a slight tremble. He glanced back over his shoulder into the still, quiet house. She had the distinct impression that it was listening, quietly absorbing their conversation. She stepped back, still clutching his shirt as he stepped forward, pulling the door closed behind him.

“Nikki…” he started.

She finally let his shirt go, sliding her hands up to his cheeks, “I’m so sorry, Dan. He was always so sweet to me; more my father than my real father.”

He shook his head, trying to continue his thought, “Nikki…” his voice sounded ragged, his calm cracking.

She pulled his head down until their foreheads were touching, his skin feeling cool as his hands rose to her shoulders, his grip almost bruising, giving the lie to his surface calm.

He took a shaky breath, shaking his head, rolling it against hers where they touched, “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered brokenly.

She tilted her head back, their lips touching, tentatively at first, then molding together with sudden need. She tasted blood and salt as she realized he was crying silently; they both were. She pulled his head into the space between her neck and shoulder, feeling his shoulders shaking.

“It’s okay, I’m here. We’re together,” she murmured into his ear as he broke down and wept. They sank to their knees, wrapped in each other’s arms on the deck by the front door.

“Shh, I’ve got you,” she murmured, “I’m not going anywhere,” she said, his arms tightening around her as he wept, his guard finally dropping.

“I promise,” she said.

 

That was the only time I ever saw him visibly grieve, she thought. Even at the funeral, he was stoic…like his mother.

She sighed, suddenly finding her throat tight at the memory.

I wonder if, even then, I’d already decided…

Nicolette was pulled from her reverie when a family of three entered the restaurant. They were dressed lightly, clearly expecting warmer weather, which probably explained the pale, shivery aspect they had about them. She smiled welcomingly, but couldn’t help the rueful amusement she felt at their expense; for some reason, out of towners never quite seemed to understand that there was a world of difference between the Northern California coast and a clip from 90210 . She felt especially bad for the little dark haired boy in shorts and flip flops trailing sullenly after his parents. She wondered if the poor kid had tried to wade out into the ocean -- if so, he was probably a very unhappy little puppy, she thought pityingly, though her pity was mitigated by the trail of sand that followed him into the restaurant.

Came straight from the beach, did you? Guess who’s going to be cleaning that up when the shift ends?

She checked the seating chart, then led the family into Brian’s section, suppressing a snarl as she heard the pen clatter to the floor behind her. Point to you, Mr. Marker, point to you.

She waited for them to seat themselves before handing out the menus.

“Can I get you started with something to drink? Some hot tea maybe?”

She smiled at the sulky, shivery boy, adding “Or maybe some hot chocolate?”

She was rewarded with a shy smile and an affirming nod from his mother.

As she turned away, he hastily asked, “Does the fog ever go away?” with an air of rapidly gathered courage.

She exchanged a knowing grin with his mother, a tall blonde with brown eyes, wearing a flowery blouse and loose white slacks more appropriate for a coastal Mexican resort than a Half Moon Bay evening. “I have no idea -- I’ve only lived here seventeen years. If it changes, I’ll give you a call.”

They dutifully chuckled -- it had been brilliantly sunny and warm that afternoon, though the ocean was probably uncomfortably cold for anyone without a wetsuit.

Nicolette paused by the bar to put in their drink order with Chris, the bartender, then returned to the podium to find the dry erase marker that had made a break for it, intent on taking it back into custody.

Five minutes later found her bent over, trying to jam her hand between two long planters filled with snake plants. How the stupid marker had managed to get itself into that tight little slot behind the podium was a mystery, but she steadfastly refused to let its recalcitrance have the last word. She could just feel the marker with the tips of her fingers as they grazed its slick, plastic surface. She heard the door open behind her as a group of customers arrived. Her heart sank as she realized her hand and arm were momentarily wedged between the planters. She couldn’t help imagining the view she was presenting to what was probably the largest group she’d had in the latter half of her shift and felt her cheeks heating as she tugged her arm in a desperate attempt to get it unwedged.

She sighed inwardly, And thus, balance is restored to the universe.

 

Daniel stood on the sidewalk outside of Harry’s, watching Dane and Shelly approach. They had all left the Cobra room at the same time, but he and Tommy had arrived well before Dane and Shelly. Tommy stood next to Daniel, silently eyeing the somnolent street. It was nearly half past nine -- almost closing time for the kitchen at Harry’s. It had taken Shelly almost twenty minutes to put in an appearance with the California T after he had texted Dane. While it was undeniably true that she loved driving the Ferrari, she drove it knowing she was responsible for a quarter million dollars worth of someone else’s car, which is to say, infuriatingly below the speed limit and oblivious to traffic that backed up behind her. Daniel could never figure out how Dane tolerated being a passenger in his own car with Shelly at the wheel, but as he and Shelly joined them, he seemed at ease as he walked with Shelly’s hand resting on his forearm.

Shelly pulled away from Dane and hugged Daniel warmly in greeting. He briefly enfolded her in his arms, once again surprised how slight she was. She was probably just under 5’ 2”, with wavy blonde hair and the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. She stepped back, her pleased smile highlighting the dimples of her heart-shaped face.

“Hey big guy. Dane mentioned you broke up with Carla!”

Daniel, annoyed that people would gossip about him, found that he couldn’t sustain his irritation at her effusive good cheer and genuine sympathy, “Yeah, I think we both hit the wall—“

“Literally,” Tommy mumbled sotto voce.

Daniel pointedly ignored him, “—and decided there was nothing left for us in the relationship. We still talk a little bit, but…”

He shrugged as he trailed off.

Shelly nodded sympathetically, but seemed to sense that he didn’t want to talk about it as she transferred her smile to Tommy, “Heya, T! How are you?”

While Shelly was normally more comfortable with a hug than a handshake, there had always been a standoffishness about Tommy which even Shelly could rarely comfortably bridge. He grinned back, then dipped his head in her direction before executing a mock bow. With a pleased giggle, she curtseyed in return then retreated back to Dane, hooking her hand back onto his arm. As if that was their signal, they all turned toward Harry’s and made their way to the entrance. Daniel hurried his steps so he could open the door for them. Tommy and Dane held back while Shelly stepped into the restaurant first.

Daniel smiled with amusement as she unconsciously raised her chin and threw her shoulders back, making an entrance ahead of them.

She’s establishing a beachhead for the rest of us, he thought, amused at the juxtaposition of imagery from his military service with 5’ 2” Shelly in heels with Dane’s jacket draped over her shoulders.

They crossed the simulated hardwood floor of the waiting area to the podium where they were greeted by the hostess’ rear end thrust into the air, her arm jammed between rectangular planters filled with snake plants. Daniel felt a moment of amused sympathy for her as he wondered whether she realized her black cocktail dress was almost transparent where it stretched over her hips. He briefly debated shrugging out of his jacket and throwing it over her in an attempt to preserve her modesty, but the ensuing mental image was so absurd, he wondered if he might still be a little buzzed.

Shelly cleared her throat and started to ask if the hostess was okay, but with a final grunt the hostess managed to pull her arm free, holding a black dry erase marker clenched in her fist. Despite her obvious blush of embarrassment (Yup, Daniel thought sympathetically, she knows) she radiated primal satisfaction as she straightened up, avoiding their gaze. She dropped the marker back into its proper place, then pulled several menus from the side of the podium. She turned, putting on her best professional smile despite her obvious blush and the awkwardness of the situation, “Welcome to Harry’s! Party of…?”

Her eyes widened as they met Daniel’s, her practiced greeting sputtering to a halt as she unconsciously hugged the menus protectively to her chest. She stumbled back a half step and fell off her heel. Nicolette grabbed at the podium as she fell, the menus dropping to the ground as she uttered a breathless little shriek. Instinctively, Daniel lunged forward, roughly knocking Dane out to the way, grabbing at her but unable to reach her before she banged her knee painfully on the planter and half collapsed, right hip first into the line of snake plants. Distantly, her mind registered the painful jabs of several of the crushed plants into her backside, but her mind was too stunned to pay them much heed (or the spreading dampness soaking through her sheer dress from the damp soil in the planter). Time dilated as all other senses and distractions momentarily faded into the background while they studied each other.

She sat, making no effort to extricate herself from the planter, stunned, her mind frozen. She knew this encounter was bound to happen; she had suspected it would happen sooner rather than later. But so soon… She never would have guessed he would have walked into her work in the middle of her shift. She was paralyzed, eyes wide, suddenly finding breathing difficult, her thoughts spinning in crazy circles.

He’s taller than I remember, she thought, and he’s gotten broader in the shoulders. Such sad eyes he has now!

She stared at him, drinking in the details, taking in his lean angular face, saved from being elfin by his strong chin. He’s cut his hair, she observed, remembering how he used to be embarrassed by his wide forehead. He’d always complained that it made his eyes seem narrow, as if he was perpetually squinting in bright sunlight, hiding the rich brown shade of his eyes. His five-o’clock shadow softened the lines of his face, filling in some of the angles. She was aware that he was more fit and muscular than she remembered, his shoulders filling out the worn, brown leather jacket he was wearing, the definition of his chest evident though the simple grey t-shirt he wore.

What happened to his hand?, she wondered in bewilderment as she noted he was missing most of his left pinkie and the top joint of his left ring finger (her mind noted that he wasn’t wearing a wedding band -- or any jewelry at all). She felt tears sting her eyes as she wondered what kind of terrible accident would leave his hand so scarred and injured.

My God, he’s beautiful, she thought, suddenly filled with longing.

 

Daniel stared, his mind frozen in a state of shock, paralyzed and unable to think or speak. He had often fantasized what this encounter would be like, but now that he was faced with her, all the things he’d imagined, all the words he’d practiced over the years completely fled his mind.

He studied her, heart hammering in his chest. He found himself staring at her face, unconsciously memorizing the details, still not completely convinced this wasn’t all too much alcohol mixing with leftover emotion from Carla’s departure to create this delusion.

Her eyes were darker than he remembered, striking when contrasted with her honey-blonde hair. Her eyebrows were thinner, more expertly shaped than he remembered, making her eyes seem more expressive -- though he noted a white, triangular scar running through her left eyebrow, pointing toward her hairline. Though it broke the symmetry of her features, it seemed to enhance the overall symmetry rather detract from it. His eyes followed the lines of her face, tracing her elfin chin and strong cheekbones, the lines turning almost straight to her hairline. He knew she had dimples when she smiled, but they weren’t in evidence as she stared back at him, breathing deeply with shock.

He had never expected to see her again, but here she was, dressed in a form-hugging stretchy black cocktail dress with a simple but elegant black cardigan. He was aware of her athletic figure, the hint of cleavage revealed by her dress’ décolletage. His eyes fell on the double loop of her necklace; St. Jude he recognized on the longer loop pointing downward, but the other pendant on the tighter loop -- a triangle perfectly contained in a circle -- wasn’t familiar. He noted the tattoo -- the black lines of a rosary -- on her wrist where it peeked from beneath the sleeve of her top.

Probably ending in a cross, he thought, his thoughts confused and jumbled. His eyes immediately tracked to her left hand, noting the iodized coil of wires on her ring finger.

She’s still wearing it, he thought numbly.

Indignant, frustrated rage swept through him. He had worked so hard to get her out of his mind -- he’d joined the Army for Pete’s sake! -- to accept that she had left Half Moon Bay and wasn’t coming back. Finding any sense of equilibrium after her abandonment had nearly killed him. He snarled as she plowed through his hard-won balance like a child kicking over a sand castle.

He struggled with the sudden urge to grab her hand and forcibly take the ring back. As if sensing his rage and pain, her eyes filled with tears.

“Daniel…” she murmured.

Her voice broke his stasis as time undilated, slowly uncoiling to return to its normal flow. He stepped forward and extended his hand, offering her assistance from her awkward seat in the planter of murdered snake plants. She hesitated before accepting the offered hand, her cool skin on his palm sending an electric tingle racing through his body, starting where her fingertips rested on his wrist. A detached part of his mind wondered if she felt it too as her eyes widened in surprise. Dazed, he pulled her gently to her feet, allowing her to use his hand and arm for support until she found her own balance. As soon as she looked stable, he snatched his hand back, shocked to find himself almost blinded by tears. He turned, intending to bail from the restaurant, hoping to preserve at least a little of his dignity.

She reached after him, “Daniel…”

He spun around as her fingertips landed on his biceps, tearing his arm from her grasp as he raised his fist to gesture emphatically at her with a forefinger pointed at her chin. He didn’t raise his voice, but the sudden silence that had fallen over the restaurant made his strangled growl into a shout, “Nikki -- you can go straight to Hell!”

Later, when he calmed down and replayed the memory with a mixture of anger and shame, he realized that she hadn't flinched back from his anger -- she hadn't even blinked, her eyes never leaving his, filled with sadness and hurt as her hand dropped to her side. Later he would be surprised when he found how much her pain disturbed him.

She shook her head, her voice tight with emotion as she quietly spoke into the silence, “Daniel…I’m…”

But he never heard the rest as he spun again, stalking toward the front of the restaurant, throwing his weight against the front door. It slammed open, then rebounded forcefully, the window in the upper half of the door shattering into myriad tiny sparkling cubes of tinted safety glass.

She stared at the safety glass scattered over the lobby floor, aware that her hands were shaking. Slowly conversation began to reestablish itself in the restaurant behind her as she became aware of her surroundings once again.

Guess who’s going to be cleaning that up?, she thought, then unceremoniously burst into tears as her earlier wry thought returned: And thus, balance is really restored to the universe.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine: Fast Friends

 

SHE watched the tall blonde man hurry after Daniel, calling out to him as he left. Painfully aware of the audience she’d picked up in the restaurant, Nicolette struggled to master her emotions. She wanted desperately to fade into the background, to reclaim the invisibility restaurant employees frequently enjoyed. As quickly as her tears had started, she got them under control. She shook her head, her voice thick with emotion as she quietly murmured, “Well that sucked.”

She jumped as the last remaining member of Daniel’s group, standing almost at Nikki’s elbow, quietly murmured back, “Yeah, sorry about that. He’s been kind of on edge lately.”

Nicolette studied the petite blonde standing just to the right of her podium, fascinated by the arresting blue of her eyes.

She dresses well, she thought, taking in the summery designer dress, the Jimmy Choo shoes, all overlaid with a tailored Armani men’s jacket (probably chivalrously offered to her by her date). She hoped her date was the tall blonde man that had pursued Daniel out of the restaurant and not Daniel. As the other woman smiled at her, Nicolette felt cheap and drab in comparison, with her thrift-store clothes and generic brand shoes. She resisted an urge to pull her cardigan closed as the other woman’s eyes fell on her necklaces. Her gaze momentarily fixated on the inner pendant, leaving Nikki with the certainty that she recognized the symbol. Nikki was suddenly annoyed at herself, at her cringing defensiveness. She straightened her back, staring at the other woman defiantly, though she couldn’t fully hide the catch in her breath as they studied each other.

She watched as the woman broke into a sunny smile and offered her hand, “I’m Shelly -- Shelly Weber.”

Nicolette automatically took the proffered hand, feeling the woman’s cool skin against her palm as they briefly clasped hands. Before she could introduce herself, Shelly volunteered, “I know you’re Nikki -- Nicolette Cooper!”

“I…yes. How did you know?”

Shelly’s smile became sly, perhaps a little bit self-satisfied, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

She struggled to pull her gaze back from the doorway, from Daniel. She studied the woman’s face, feeling a faint hint of familiarity, though no specific memory came to mind. She apologetically conceded, “No, I’m sorry.”

Shelly laughed, her body language inclusive and welcoming as she lightly patted Nicolette’s arm, “It was forever ago -- we met at Beach Party when I crashed it after my Freshman year. You and Daniel rescued me from those creepy junior college guys that crashed it.”

A faint memory stirred, something about a petite, scared looking girl that had gotten separated from her group. Nicolette unconsciously swiped her hand across her cheeks as she felt an answering smile, the other woman’s friendliness insulating her from her distress.

“You were wearing a tartan skirt?”

Shelly clapped her hands as she laughed, then surprised Nicolette when she stepped forward and hugged her, “You do remember! I was still pretty mousey back then.”

Nicolette reluctantly stepped away, half turning as she heard the distinctive gait of Harry’s manager, Mr. Solis. She couldn’t completely suppress her sigh at the heavy slapping of his dress shoes as he approached. Ernesto Solis was a portly man that once might have carried his weight well, but had fallen prey to a sedentary lifestyle. To Nikki’s eye, he always seemed like a man achingly conscious of his working class roots as he attempted to project an air of upper class patrician dignity. He unconsciously pulled his tailored jacket closed and buttoned the top button as he stumped up to the podium, his dismay giving rise to equal dismay in Nikki. While he was capable of being loud and demanding, his primary mode seemed more passive-aggressive than anything else. Aware that Shelly -- a potential customer, not to mention an attractive, well-dressed woman -- was watching, he put on his best authoritative-but-trying-hard-to-appear-sympathetic face on, “Miss Cooper,” it was always Miss Cooper never Nikki or Nicolette, “what happened here?”

She hesitated, then immediately regretted her hesitation as some subtle shift in his expression suggested he had been prepared to shift the blame to her if she gave the slightest indication of guilt. Nicolette once again mused that Harry’s owner must have hired her over Mr. Solis’ objections. Doubtless his displeasure was further exacerbated by her refusal to cooperate with the narrative of lazy recidivism he desperately tried to project onto her. His narrative had been repeatedly thwarted by her uncomplaining industriousness. Her willingness to take on whatever work he foisted on her gave him little leverage to prove the wisdom of his dislike…which only served to increase his dislike further.

Before Nicolette could answer, Shelly stepped forward and offered her hand, causing his semi-concerned frown to deepen as he half-heartedly took her hand, “I’m sorry, sir -- my friend had a little too much to drink at the club and accidentally broke the glass when he left.”

She broke his unenthusiastic grip and dug in the pocket of the jacket she was wearing, coming up with a business card, “Please feel free to contact Dane -- Mr. Mazlewski -- I’m sure we can settle any damages.”

Mr. Solis accepted the card as though she was offering him an unpleasantly moist dishrag; he pocketed it without even pausing to look at it. He turned to Nicolette with one eyebrow raised, clearly unsatisfied when she nodded in agreement, but just as clearly unwilling to contradict Shelly directly. He patted Nicolette’s elbow awkwardly, “Well, I’m glad to hear he didn’t cause more serious harm. If he comes back, by all means, call 9-1-1.”

Nikki dutifully nodded, adopting an earnest expression, “Sure thing, Mr. Solis.”

She gestured across the glass and sand covered lobby floor, “I’ll clean this up right now,” she leaned to her right, raising her hand to catch the bartender’s eye. He nodded in acknowledgement, then quickly flagged down one of the bar-backs.

Mr. Solis patted her elbow awkwardly again, “Very good. Why don’t you go home when you’re done, Miss Cooper -- it looks like business is slowing down. I’ll ask Mick to board up the window before we lock up.”

He transferred his gaze to Shelly, adopting his formal dressing down voice, “Thank you, Miss…”

“Weber.”

“Miss Weber. I strongly advise you to tell your friend that he’s not welcome here in the future.”

Shelly nodded, “Of course. I’m terribly sorry about the mess. It won’t happen again.”

Mr. Solis nodded, favored Nikki with a final parting remonstrative glance, then slapped his way back to his office, doubtless to call the owner and make arrangements for the broken window…and likely give the owner an earful about her, if he could. Nikki fought the urge to flip off his retreating back, suddenly and surprisingly angry at him. She was acutely aware of the subtext, subtext which blamed her for any ills that might befall the restaurant whether they were manmade or acts of God.

Abruptly, her outrage wilted, leaving a grey despairing sadness in its wake. What was the point of all this if she couldn’t patch things up…

She let the thought drop as one of the bar backs -- Rob -- rushed forward, carrying a broom and dustpan. As Nikki accepted the broom, Shelly held out her hand, “Here, let me. It was my friend that broke it.”

Surprised, Nikki looked at Shelly in her expensive shoes and designer dress offering to sweep up broken glass and some kid’s tracked-in beach sand and felt her opinion of Shelly rise further, “No, but thank you; I’m getting paid to do this, after all.”

She smiled bitterly as she added, “And if anyone’s going to take the blame for Daniel’s behavior, I think my claim predates yours by, like, years.”

Shelly frowned thoughtfully, but offered no further comment.

Nicolette hesitated, finding herself on unfamiliar ground, “I’m guessing you can’t go anywhere until your man comes back.”

Shelly giggled, “‘My man’.” A small pleased smile played about her lips, “He is mine, isn’t he?”

The dreamy expression left as she recalled herself to the conversation, “He’d probably be unhappy if I left without him…”

Nicolette gestured toward the chairs lining the waiting area, “You’re more than welcome to wait here until he comes back.”

Shelly nodded agreeably, “Sure.”

As Nikki bent to her task, she glanced at Shelly, studying her, feeling her silence like a physical weight. She caught the other woman staring at her necklaces again. Nikki unconsciously touched the encircled-triangle hanging around her throat like a choker. As their eyes met, she once again unconsciously sensed that Shelly understood its significance. Nikki braced herself for the inevitable questions. She should be used to it by now, but in truth, she felt bruised every time it came up in conversation. Nevertheless, she refused to hide it, to put up a false front and pretend she was something that she wasn’t.

She watched Shelly defiantly, I am what I am.

Shelly’s expression softened as she watched the emotions play across Nicolette’s face.

“We all have our stories,” she murmured, her tone full of sympathy.

As the silence stretched, Nicolette realized that Shelly wasn’t going to press for details. She felt gratitude and relief wash through her, surprised that this petite stranger could be so insightful and simultaneously understanding. She was still struggling with her own emotions, fighting through her disappointment and despair in the aftermath of her unexpected encounter with Daniel. She had hoped she’d have more time to prepare for their meeting, but coming as unexpectedly as it had, her guard had been down. She forced herself to take deep breaths and focus on the work at hand, to distract herself with work from this strange girl watching her sweep broken glass.

She was spared from having to make a reply when a middle aged couple passed through the lobby on their way out, sparing Nikki a curious glance. She forced a professional smile, hoping the wateriness of her eyes didn’t undermine her professional facade. As the door swung back, Nikki finished sweeping the mingled broken glass and sand into a little pile, surreptitiously resuming her study of the other woman. With slow-dawning surprise, Nicolette realized that under different circumstances, she would have been attracted to her. Sensing Nicolette’s approval without fully understanding it, she blushed under Nicolette’s scrutiny.

To break the sudden awkwardness, Nicolette began sweeping the glass into the dust pan as she unsuccessfully feigned nonchalance while asking, “How long have you known Daniel?”

Shelly smiled, “Oh, about three years, I think; maybe a little less. He was a security guy at Dane’s club while he pulled himself together. He quit after he got his paramedic’s license…or certification…whatever it is paramedics get in order to work.”

Nikki frowned as she straightened up, “Put himself back together?”

Shelly looked genuinely surprised, “After he got back from the Army.”

Nicolette blinked, her mind struggling to catch up, “The Army! That’s crazy! What on Earth…”

Her voice faltered as she realized her departure and his enlistment were probably related.

Shelly smiled sympathetically, “I don’t know many of the details…or…to be totally honest, I don’t think it’s really my place to go into too many details. He was struggling when he got back, though.”

His handis that…

She cut the thought off, wishing she hadn’t heard any of this, knowing that now wasn’t the time to let herself feel any of the associated guilt.

Nikki hesitated, scanning the interior of the restaurant without really seeing anything, as she involuntarily replayed the encounter through the lens of Shelly’s information.

“He was so angry. I didn’t expect that he’d be so angry,” she murmured softly.

Shelly held her silence, waiting Nikki out. Feeling at a loss, only half aware she was speaking out loud, Nicolette asked, “What do I do?”

She hated the plaintive, little-girl-lost note that involuntarily crept into her voice.

“Right now? Go to coffee with me and Dane…when he gets back,” she added encouragingly.

Shelly’s face lit up as another thought followed on the heels of her invitation, “You know…we’re going to a place up in the city next Friday. You should come with Dane and me!”

Dane strode through the doorway, his shoes crunching on broken glass still littering the sidewalk, “Sounds good! Go where?”

Shelly slapped at his arm in mock irritation as she stood, “You were eavesdropping!”

He leaned away from her, holding up his hands in surrender, “I wasn’t!”

His playful smile seemed strained to Nikki; she wondered what exactly it was Daniel and Dane had been talking about, though she noted he had returned without Daniel. Nikki wanted to wilt with mingled disappointment and relief as she realized her one brief encounter left her unsatisfied, wanting to see him again, perhaps see if there was anything in his expression that might give her reason for hope…but simultaneously feeling unprepared to field his hostility.

They were talking about me, most likely, she thought.

He paused, his playful smile fading as he glanced around the lobby, “Where’s Tommy?”

Nikki and Shelly exchanged a puzzled glance as Shelly answered, “We thought he went with you guys.”

Nicolette caught the subtle, inclusive emphasis on ‘we’, feeling a little tingle of warmth that Shelly would so quickly adopt her.

Dane shook his head in puzzlement, “He must have bailed when things started to get dramatic. That kid can be a slippery fish, sometimes.”

Shelly looked up at Dane as she insinuated herself under his right arm, “Let’s go to the fish place -- I think Harry’s is going to be a bust,” she smiled at Nikki as she added, “Nikki’s going to join us.”

Dane studied Nikki thoughtfully for a second, his easy smile infectious despite her unsettled emotions.

“Sure thing, babe.”

He leaned over and kissed the top of Shelly’s head as he momentarily freed his arm to offer it to Nicolette. “Dane. Dan Mazlewski.”

She took his hand, smiling, “Nicolette Cooper.”

His smile widened, becoming less strained, “Pleased to meet’ya!”

“Let me finish up here,” she said, feeling the first glimmer of hope since she’d returned.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten: Marked: Daniel

 

DANIEL shrugged deeper into his coat as the chilly wind soughed in off the night-darkened ocean, bringing with it a faint hint of salt spray. He watched the white line of foam as the inky surf retreated, the rollers unnaturally bright against the lightless water. He had always felt a connection to the sea, finding comfort in its rhythm, in its quietly contained fury. He loved the sense of mystery and ambiguity he always felt when he visited the beach, a feeling enhanced at night, knowing that the waves were roaring shoreward, indifferent to anyone that might be listening. It humbled Daniel, made him feel small and insignificant. Conversely, he also felt as though his presence on the beach listening to the sea communing with the land and sky in its incomprehensible language seemed to signify that he was part of a larger whole, even if that part was relatively modest.

When he had been in high school, it hadn’t concerned him that his greater purpose in life hadn’t been revealed to him yet. As long as that purpose included Nikki, he hadn’t much cared what that future might reveal; with her at his side, he felt as though he could take on anything that came his way. It had shattered his sense of belonging and direction when she’d left so precipitously, so completely. What purpose could he possibly serve that would be worth having without her? On one level, he knew it was histrionic and foolish, but on another level, he felt as though the entire foundation of assumptions he’d built his future on had unexpectedly crumbled.

Feeling cut adrift and lost, he’d often come to the beach, frequenting the haunts that he and Nicolette had shared when they wanted privacy. He had spent hours listening to the surf, hoping his communion with it would give him some hint of an alternative future. All he’d found was a profound sense of loneliness and frustration; the person he kept wanting to turn to and share his burden of frustration and loneliness with was the source of his suffering. It had all come to a head when he’d gotten into an argument with his younger brother, Ryan, an argument which had escalated to violence -- a truly absurd thing, considering how dispassionate and even-keeled Ryan usually was.

Daniel shook his head as he remembered the argument, the words which had set off his hair-trigger temper. He still felt shame at the memory. Ryan had only told him what he already knew, but Ryan’s calm certainty and simple unvarnished opinion of Nicolette had unhinged Daniel. The fight hadn’t gone well for Ryan, two years his junior. Years later, Daniel still felt bad about it, despite the fact that Ryan had accepted Daniel’s apology…though Daniel still felt an uneasiness when he spent time with Ryan. He suspected that Ryan hadn’t forgotten it, or even really let it go; it wasn’t in his nature, despite his general dispassion.

It seemed so pointless to revisit these old memories, but he found himself unable to stop re-litigating the past after the bone-jarring hit he’d received earlier that evening.

When it had become clear his anger and his need to fight were only going to make increasingly bigger problems if he didn’t make a change, Daniel had decided to enlist. He had hoped that removing himself from Half Moon Bay, from an environment saturated with things that reminded him of what he’d lost -- or had been taken away from him -- might give him a chance to sort himself out and perhaps find something to fill his sudden lack of purpose. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Army had paid him a generous bonus for enlisting, a bonus that he’d insisted be used for his younger sibling’s college funds; he felt he owed his brother that much. For a little while, the Army had delivered; he had suddenly found his time filled to capacity, leaving little room to think about Half Moon Bay or Nicolette or the imaginary future he had built up with her.

It had been a shock when he mustered out and returned after four years of service to discover that the sense of purpose he had been seeking was still lacking, that he still lacked a center; only now he had post-traumatic memories to contend with as well. While Daniel readily acknowledged that self-pity and introspection were sometimes unavoidable, he needed a sense of forward momentum to maintain even a semblance of sanity or self-worth. Nevertheless, when Ramona, his mother, had suggested that he needed to move forward and find a career, even if it meant going to college, he had hesitated to embrace the idea. Perhaps intuiting some of the guilt he felt as a result of his wartime experiences, Ramona had suggested he pursue work as a paramedic or in some other life-saving capacity. At first he had rejected the idea, content to drink during the day to keep his gremlins at bay while working nights at Dane’s club. But he’d felt a growing sense of restlessness, a sense of stagnation that grew increasingly hard to ignore. It had come as a shock when he’d realized that Ramona’s suggestion actually represented a way forward, a rally point around which he could finally start rebuilding.

Ironically, the Army had given him a purpose after all, but only by inflicting injuries to his psyche that were almost as grievous as the ones left by Nikki. He’d thrown himself into his job training and classwork, had worked to find some measure of direction and forward movement…the specific destination didn’t even matter any more, just so long as he wasn’t stuck in an emotional gyre of his own (or Nicolette’s!) making. He had good days where he woke up feeling driven, feeling a sense of direction, but had many more days where it had been a matter of pure willpower to get out of bed, to skip past the bottle of whiskey stashed under the cupboard. The bad days still outnumbered the good, but it had finally felt as though the ratio of bad to good had finally hit an inflection point and might be changing for the better.

Standing on the beach, listening to the wind and the inexorability of the tide as the waves crept up the beach, he felt like a fool.

All it had taken was thirty seconds, maybe ten words of conversation with her, and all the work he’d done to put himself back onto a right path was little more than wishful thinking. He felt like a child fantasizing his sand castle was going to be home to dragons, only to have a rogue wave reduce his fantasy to a pile of sand that would be erased by the indifferent morning tide.

The mental image of all his work and rebuilding being casually destroyed momentarily tipped him over the edge. He bellowed into the darkness, knowing he’d get no answer, but needing the release. He stood, staring intently over the ocean, hoping -- praying -- for some kind of response, some indication what he was supposed to be doing...and suddenly felt silly, screaming like a tantrumy child, whimpering about the unfairness of the universe.

He laughed bitterly as he pulled the oval of whiskey from his pocket, stared blearily at the label before uncapping it and taking a generous swallow. He winced at the burn, noting that he was almost two thirds done. He had bought it just after leaving Harry’s, wanting desperately to escape from the overwhelming feelings the encounter had ignited. He needed time to sort out his confusion and make a plan, formulate some kind of strategy for dealing with this…development…situation. Whatever it was.

Dane had tried to talk to him, to talk him down. Good man. Out of respect for his friend, Daniel had stopped long enough to hear him out, to give Dane a chance to have his say so he could walk away feeling like he’d at least done something.

He toasted Dane then took another drink before recapping the bottle. He suspected he was drinking ahead of the buzz; he’d be insensible if he didn’t stop.

He cocked his head to the side as he considered this.

Insensible. Incapable of sensing. By implication not feeling.

He smirked bitterly as he pulled the bottle of whiskey out of his coat pocket for another draw.

Sounds like a Goddamned good deal just now.

He turned and continued walking along the beach with no real destination in mind, perhaps unconsciously hoping he could temporarily outpace his Gremlins. He had almost reached the end of the beach, where sand gave way to rocky coastline and steep, crumbly cliffs. He stopped almost at the very end, reflecting that the incoming tide was likely to make the return trip to his car pretty miserable.

Fuck it, he thought. He wasn’t expected back on shift until Tuesday night, so he could afford to be irresponsible if he wanted. At the extreme end of the beach, he paused by a shattered boulder sitting at the base of the cliff. There were too many memories wrapped up in this particular spot. He had frequented it with Nikki, the pair of them often sitting side by side, watching the sun set the ocean afire with myriad rubies and citroens, often sharing their most deeply held secrets and dreams. He’d continued to frequent it after she’d left, the memories wrapped up with that oddly shaped boulder giving him a false sense of connection to her while he still held out hope that her departure might only be temporary. Shortly before he shipped out for basic, he’d made a midnight visit with a sledge hammer and in what had felt like a symbolic gesture of closure, he’d reduced it to rubble. He hadn’t been back since.

He found a suitable perch and settled on the chilly, damp sand, setting his back to one of the bigger chunks left over from his previous adventure. He laughed bitterly into the cold wind, the whisky giving him a momentary sense of invulnerability, It was definitely closure, he told himself sarcastically, it definitely wasn’t pique or a transferred desire to punish Nikki with a childish and destructive gesture which was ultimately meaningless. ‘Course not!

As he sat, staring blindly into the inky darkness, he felt a brief moment of sadness for the boulder, feeling a brief spate of alcohol-induced sentimentality.

Seriously, Daniel? With all the shit you’ve done that’s regrettable, you’re going to take that hit to the feels for a rock?

The absurdity of the line of thought brought a genuine chuckle. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, resting it on the rock, reveling in the gentle whisky-spin that had started. He pulled the bottle from his pocket without opening his eyes, draining it before recapping it and putting it back in his pocket. He reflected once again that he needed to formulate a plan of attack for this situation, knowing that ignoring it wasn’t going to work. You dealt with the situation at hand, not the one you wished you were in.

Insensate. Having no senses. Senseless. Senseless. But she’s come back! She’s here! Probably only a couple of miles away!

When unconsciousness finally came, he was thinking about going in circles, gyres, whirlpools, things that dragged you down, down under the surface, surface calm, turbulent waters….

 

Daniel had rarely, if ever, experienced lucid dreaming. His brother claimed to experience lucid dreaming on a fairly routine basis, but Daniel could only extrapolate what it must feel like. Or at least, until now; he was pretty sure he was lucid dreaming now. The thought was swept away almost as quickly as it came, leaving behind a vague awareness that something was wrong. He knelt as something caught his eye -- something which caught the light, reflecting redly from the ground as he moved. He stopped, feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach as he knelt for a closer look at the sandy concrete under his feet.

Blood.

A few spots, but as he began casting about in a wider area, he found much bigger drops soaking into the ground, spaced fairly close together.

For a moment, his Army experience and his Paramedic training were at odds, his Army experience feeling like a cold blanket of callousness slipping over his emotions, numbing and insulating them: Motherfucker bleeding out, he thought.

Then his Paramedic training took over, pushing that cold blanket away. It demanded immediate action, impelled by a certain knowledge that anyone bleeding like this was in desperate straits. He found the line of travel and began following the sandy, concrete steps down onto the beach. Unconsciously, he realized that he was on the stairway leading down the cliffs to the beach near the Ritz, perhaps a quarter of a mile from Sunset Rock -- the boulder that he and Nicolette used to share.

As that thought hit him, he felt a bizarre sense of juxtaposition, the certain knowledge that he was already at Sunset Rock…and also here, only a quarter of a mile from himself. He stared back up the beach in confusion, trying to force his eyes to pierce the night time shroud which covered the unlighted beach. For a moment he stood, exactly poised between waking and dreaming, feeling that strange sense of duality. But the moment passed as his first responder imperative reasserted itself, pulling his gaze back to the ground to resume searching. It took a moment of casting about the sand where the steps ended and the beach began, but once he found the trail, it was easy to follow, the heavy droplets of blood leading along the cliff face as he headed back toward the hotel, away from (himself) Sunset Rock. The crash of the waves was muted, as was the sensation of wind coming from the ocean, but he was aware of the cold, feeling a growing numbness in his feet and lower extremities.

He increased his pace, tracking the blood to a disturbed area in the sand. He studied it, bringing to bear his experience following trail sign, coming to the conclusion that there had been some kind of fight with several participants. There was blood scattered all across the beach, along with several different sets of footsteps creating a wide circle around a central depression in the sand. He could almost picture it -- a lone fighter making his stand as several opponents circled him, perhaps harrying him.

Whoever this lone fighter was, the attackers were scared of him. They dodged in and out, but were clearly unwilling to rush him. No one wanted to be first.

He paused, feeling a dull sense of shock as his mind caught up to what his dreaming eyes were seeing. Scattered across the sand, he noted several foreign objects, bits of litter he first supposed, until one of them showed a glint of gold.

Fingers, he realized, sliced cleanly, an attacker’s hand caught in mid-motion, probably. He felt his legs continuing to go numb with cold, giving him a sense of urgency. Daniel stood and continued tracking the blood trail along the beach, pausing only briefly when he encountered another disturbed patch of sand. He was filled with a sudden certainty that his quarry was at the base of the cliffs almost directly under the hotel, the nearness of his destination bringing him to a jog. It was a good thing the tide was out, or he’d be wading through numbingly cold Northern California surf, pounding the rocky cliffs to his right, likely leaving him struggling not to be the nail between the hammer and rocky anvil.

Ahead of him, the hotel sat on top of a finger of land which pushed out into the ocean. As he rounded the bend, he saw a glimmer of steel in the dim light, drawing his eyes to a figure lying amongst the rocks, leaning back against the cliff face. Daniel didn’t hesitate, increasing his jog to a run until he came abreast of the figure; an elderly Chinese man, sitting back against the rock. His stomach sank as his intuition suggested the man was DOA. He hesitated, feeling a sudden certainty that any movement on his part would confirm what his intuitive mind had already served up, a confirmation he unconsciously sought to delay as long as possible. The man lay in stillness, wearing maroon sweat pants and a green and white Hawaiian shirt sporting a bamboo and egret motif. Across his chest, Daniel saw a leather strap which his eyes followed up to an empty sheath poking up over his right shoulder.

Daniel’s breath caught as the man’s eyes opened, staring out over the ocean for a moment before focusing on Daniel. He coughed, the sound unpleasantly moist.

He’s almost certainly bleeding into his lungs, probably other injuries as well, if the fights on the beach are any indication.

Daniel moved forward, his stasis broken as relief flooded through him. It wasn’t too late; he could still do some good here. As he approached, Daniel realized the man was covered with long scratches, blood running down his arms, soaking into his shirt. Daniel wondered how much blood had soaked into the man’s trousers, hidden by their dark color.

He adopted his best reassuring professional voice, “It’s going to be okay, just sit back and relax so I can have a look at you.”

The old man smiled as the blade he had concealed on his right side -- the side away from Daniel -- momentarily lifted into Daniel's view, then was carefully put aside.

So that’s what caught my eye.

When the man spoke, his voice was surprisingly deep and resonant, though clearly under strain from the pain of his injuries, “Finally. I was beginning to worry I wouldn’t have enough time.”

Daniel spoke soothingly, keeping his calm for the benefit of the client, “Everything’s going to be okay. Where are you injured?”

The old man smiled, amused, “Relax, Daniel. Odds are good that I’m already dead.”

Daniel shook his head in irritation, though he couldn’t help a grim chuckle, “Liveliest corpse I ever saw. Let me look… How did you…?”

“You have no idea how lively corpses can get, son. Messages delivered via Celestial are sometimes…somewhat nonlinear. “

Daniel’s brows drew together in puzzlement, “Celestials? I—“

“It doesn’t matter -- I don’t have much time. My time has come -- time and my enemies have finally caught up with me. But I intend to leave them an unpleasant surprise.”

Daniel’s confusion deepened, but he also found a thread of fear finding its way into the mix, “Who—“

“Miles, if you must know, but it’s irrelevant. I need a successor -- you are ideally qualified. One might even say ‘Chosen’, though I feel somewhat pretentious saying it that way,” he was interrupted by a spasm of wet coughing, blood spattering his lips. Daniel probed along the man’s left side, finding several deep puncture wounds which were still oozing blood. He applied direct pressure, ignoring the resultant hiss of pain, then began casting about for anything that he could use as a bandage.

Daniel began shrugging out of his shirt, intending to rip it up and use it despite the cold, ignoring the numbness he felt spreading up his legs. He was startled when the man reached out and took hold of Daniel’s right wrist with his left hand. Daniel winced at the blood-slimed, gritty grip. He looked into his eyes, intending to offer reassurances, to get the man to let go so he could do his work, but he lost the thought. They stayed that way for several long seconds before the old man reached across with his right hand, his grip on Daniel’s wrist tightening with surprising strength, despite his apparent frailty and dire injuries.

Daniel stared back wide-eyed, transfixed, his gaze held prisoner by Miles’ dark eyed gaze, feeling something powerful reaching out and holding his attention.

This must be what it feels like when mice are faced with a cobra, he thought, feeling strangely disconnected as he watched Miles’ hand until it filled his vision. He felt the tip of a calloused finger make contact with the skin on his forehead, the contact raising a wave goosebumps which swept outward on his skin, making his skin prickle with an uncomfortable electrical sensation.

They stayed that way for the briefest instant, Daniel feeling an increasing sense of anticipation, of impending change as though he was standing on a high precipice overlooking the unknown, perfectly poised between a sane rational universe, and tumbling down into something terrifyingly unknown and possibly unknowable. When the fingertip touching his forehead just over the bridge of his nose began moving, Daniel’s skin exploded with searing pain, as though a red-hot poker was being dragged through the skin, doubtlessly leaving a smoking, bubbled mess in its wake.

 

At the southern end of the beach, still sitting with his head tilted back against the shattered boulder, Daniel’s body jerked, then shook and spasmed…

 

Daniel stared back into Miles’ eyes, his own eyes wide, his breathing coming in harsh gasps, the grip on his wrist becoming painful. The searing pain on the skin of his forehead felt like it went on forever, but was over in seconds as Miles finished sketching the ideogram. He half collapsed, panting, feeling the aftereffects of his experience, as he asked, “What did you do?”

A look of sadness passed across Miles’ pained countenance, “You’ve been drafted into a primal conflict. I’ve marked you for the Celestials; they will visit you soon. The mark will fade given a little time. I apologize; I would have preferred to give you time to adjust, perhaps to train you, but I just…couldn’t.”

Miles sagged back, his skin taking on a deathly pallor which contrasted with the darkening circles under his eyes, giving his physiognomy the aspect of a skull, the skin sagging as though the bones under the skin had shrunk as he whispered, “So little time.”

His eyes widened, focused over Daniel’s left shoulder on something standing behind him, his expression shifting through alarm, then surprise. He whispered, “Who… What are you doing here? You were not summoned.”

Daniel glanced over his shoulder in alarm, his head still swimming as he struggled make sense of his surroundings in the aftermath of the pain. He turned back to Miles in puzzlement when he saw nothing behind him. Miles, still looking over Daniel’s shoulder, was lost in confusion and concentration, a hint of fear widening his eyes. Daniel pulled back his wrist where Miles still gripped it, hoping to bring him back to the present, to lucidity, but the grip came loose, his wrist slipping free, feeling uncomfortably cool where the skin under Miles’ blood-slick grip met the cooling night air. Abruptly, Miles drew in his breath as his face became animated once more, though his gaze remained focused elsewhere.

He breathed in, awe coloring his words, “You share a true love bond! I’ve only heard such a thing was possible, but…” His voice faltered as he was momentarily lost in thought.

“Yes, I see! The bond! It seems I’ve unintentionally marked you as well, my dear -- I wish I’d realized your connection sooner!” He sighed, as he began sagging back in a way that suggested to Daniel a death rattle was imminent, “I’m sorry for dragging you into this...but perhaps the both of you will be greater for it. This is good news, I think, though I doubt you’ll think so.”

He gestured to his right side, the side opposite Daniel, then he held up his right hand, cupping the air. He extended his right forefinger, tracing an ideogram into the air -- only from this perspective, Daniel could almost see a white lambent tracery of fire trailing after the moving fingertip. As the pattern was concluded, it felt as though an electric current found a pathway through Daniel and Miles, as though a circuit had been completed. He became aware of another in their momentary ring of intimacy, feeling her (he was certain the other was female) sadness, her uncertainty, her pain, and finally her love.

For me?, he wondered, feeling mixed wonderment and confusion.

The last thing he remembered was Miles whispering, his eyes refocused on Daniel as he pointed up toward the cliff face. Daniel couldn’t hear what he was whispering, but as he glanced up something silvery and strangely alive caught his attention, “Rememberrr….”

 

Daniel let out a confused, pained bellow as his crotch was soaked in freezing seawater, the climbing tide having finally reached out to him. He clumsily climbed back to his feet, feeling as though his testicles had shrunk to the size of kidney beans, his cold, wet clothes intensely uncomfortable as they clung to him. He sat, his feet braced in the wet sand as the wave withdrew, only to be replaced by a slightly less aggressive successor.

Successor… He shook his head groggily, almost immediately regretting it when the whisky-spins were almost replaced with a vomit-train spiral. He stood, slightly bent at the waist, spitting out the sour saliva that was flooding his mouth, but kept his stomach after a bitter struggle. Once his unruly stomach was once again cooperating, he stood and made his uncertain way back up the beach.

That was one freaky bender-dream, he thought, though hours later, he could still feel an uncomfortable sensitivity on his forehead where the old man in the dream had touched him. As he reached his truck, wanting nothing more than to blast the heat for a little while and change his wet trousers for the sweat pants he kept in his emergency kit, he idly wondered where Nicolette was and what she was up to. He could already feel the rudiments of an ill-advised plan forming…

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven: Marked: Nicolette

 

NICOLETTE lay in the motel double bed, watching the shadows playing across the rough ceiling. In her imagination, she made the shadows into various fantastical shapes, turning an indistinct grey blob with a yellow highlight into a dragon, several random intersecting lines into a unicorn head. With a low monotonous hum, the air conditioner made the light privacy curtains sway, causing the shadow-shapes to transmogrify into an ever-changing menagerie of fantastical forms. She listened to the hum of the machine, waiting for sleep to overtake her but finding it elusive as she tried to make sense of the evening.

She had expected that her return to Half Moon Bay would be rocky, but she never could have predicted the highs and lows. Mentally she began ticking off events since she’d returned: her lonely arrival and her first conversation with Daniel’s mother -- a definite low; landing the job at Harry’s -- a middling high; her conversation with Daniel earlier that night -- she didn’t think she’d feel any lower after speaking with Ramona, but her meeting with Daniel had proven her wrong. It had all been capped off by her coffee ‘date’ with Shelly and Dane. They had both been surprisingly understanding, wiling to listen to her tearful monolog without being the slightest bit critical. It felt good to find friends after almost two weeks struggling in isolation. She hadn’t realized how much she missed having peer group support.

She sighed as she reflected that high school hadn’t been kind to her friendships, what with her mother working so hard to sabotage them coupled with Nicolette’s reliance on the Hayes family for her high school social contact. Most of her (non-Daniel) friends had long since left Half Moon Bay, seeking careers and lives elsewhere. Of course, she hadn’t tried too hard to look up any of the old high school crowd for fear of running into Daniel before she was ready, fearing that it would play out…well…exactly how it had played out.

She closed her left eye, creating an ephemeral turtle shadow as she replayed their chance meeting earlier that evening; it struck her, not for the first time, that he had been completely shocked to see her, as if he hadn’t expected to run into her. Nicolette suspected that Ramona hadn’t mentioned to Daniel that she’d called the house looking for him; neither Dane nor Shelly had professed hearing anything from Daniel that would suggest he knew she was back. Her brow furrowed as she tried to puzzle that out; had Ramona held back the knowledge that Nikki had returned? If so, why? Did she really think Nicolette would just…disappear if she was ignored? Unless something had changed, Nikki didn’t think that was Ramona’s style…like, at all. She had specifically warned Nikki that her presence was unwelcome in the family and had strongly suggested that it would be better if she left Daniel alone. It’s not like she had been seeking him out after that conversation!

…though she ruefully forced herself to acknowledge that living in a small community like Half Moon Bay while working at Coffee Beach and Harry’s weren’t exactly jobs that minimized her likelihood of running into him. The law office job seemed a better example of a low profile job. She squinted at the shadow-snake wriggling across the ceiling as she wondered if perhaps she might have been subconsciously undermining her own efforts at anonymity. Well, if that was the case, her subconscious sure got its way!

She shook her head, abandoning the line of thought. At least dinner and coffee with Dane and Shelly had been pleasant. They’d clearly been curious about her, seeming genuinely surprised to find that the real Nikki wasn’t frothing at the lips crazy. Seven years… She couldn’t help but wonder about Daniel and what he’d been doing in the intervening years. She had been shocked at the level of vitriol and rage that he’d directed at her in their brief encounter. She had expected indifference, or maybe diffident courtesy, but after so long to encounter that

How the heck do I deal with that?!, she thought despairingly, How on Earth does one bridge the gap with such hatred?

Nicolette blinked and the ceiling menagerie disappeared, returning to blobs of shifting light and shadow. She turned on her side, exhausted, though sleep continued to escape her; her mind just wouldn’t spin down, instead replaying her evening and searching obsessively, sifting through all the nuances for guidance.

He clearly still had strong feelings, though if he hated her, it didn’t seem like there was much she could do about it, especially if Ramona was working against her…and yet…and yet… if Ramona wasn’t willing to tell Daniel that Nikki was back, that had to indicate something.

didn’t it?

She closed her eyes, focusing on the drone of the air conditioner as it ran, listening to late night traffic as it sporadically rushed past on the 1. The motel was right off of the highway with all the rooms facing into the inner parking courtyard. When she’d checked in, she had hoped to get a room facing the ocean with the dim hope that she’d be able to hear the surf despite being almost half a mile from the beach. When she’d arrived, she’d found that her memory had been confused; the only rooms available had faced suburban streets on the north or south end of the building -- the motel didn’t offer rooms facing the ocean.

She huddled more deeply into her blankets as voices crossed in front of her window. She smiled, enjoying the feelings of privacy and security as the voices faded down the slightly echoey walkway facing the parking lot. It had been a long time since she’d felt anything like this kind of physical safety. Her whole life had seemed like one long pinball game of bad living conditions as she careened from one bad situation to the next; crazy parents, creepy roommates, abusive SO’s.

Prison.

She had never really lived alone before, and for the moment, she reveled in it -- the knowledge that she could sleep without worrying about what circumstances she might awaken to. Nicolette lifted her head and checked on the desk that she’d pulled away from the wall and set across the door, followed by the heavy stuffed chair for peace of mind.

My furniture, my door!, she thought with a satisfied smile as her head settled back to the pillow. Her barricade wouldn’t keep out someone determined to enter, but that wasn’t really what she was worried about. The sense of control she had over her environment, so rarely felt throughout her life…was intoxicating. This shabby hotel room seemed like paradise when contrasted with most of the other places she’d lived over the last seven years. Most of the time, it had felt like the space she occupied was never fully her own, that the privilege of occupying that space came at a price, a price paid through compromise. The compromises she’d made to survive, to forestall her return to Half Moon Bay, had been small at first, but once she’d made her first compromise, subsequent compromises were that much easier to make. It had started with her first flat after Francesca had kicked her out, fearing Nicolette’s mother. She had moved in with a friend of Francesca’s boyfriend Robert until she could get a job. Robert, who had liked to watch her sleep. Robert, with the criminal record and seedy connections. It beat having to go home, she’d reasoned, and it wasn’t like he was really doing anything, and it was only a couple weeks. From there, her decisions, one leading to the next had seemed like a logical progression of innocence lost.

She shook the memories off as she thumbed the promise ring, trying to push Robert and those terrible memories out of her mind and replace them with a mental image of Daniel, imagining him as he was now on Sunset Rock, the setting sun giving his skin a radiant glow that made her fingers itch to touch him. She hugged the pillow harder, pretending it was Daniel as he sat next to her on Sunset Rock, always insisting on taking the uneven sloped part that unfailingly put his leg to sleep, making his other leg ache. He had always given her his jacket, pretending that he didn’t need it, his desire to start wearing extra layers giving the lie to his unabashed machismo, even when they both knew it was thin as tissue paper. She loved him for it, though, despite the extra layers making him look like that little kid from the Christmas movie…Ralphie? She remembered laughing uproariously as the poor over bundled kid fell in the snow and couldn’t get back to his feet. The juxtaposition of Ralphie and Daniel in his extra layers could still make her laugh. He’d laughed with her when she finally explained the joke.

Sunset Rock…she hadn’t thought about that in years. Mostly, she avoided the memories because they were too filled with longing and loss to bear. After she’d been in prison, the loss of freedom had added another dimension of suffering. But now she was here, in Half Moon Bay…

She could clearly remember one hazy evening as they watched the sun set, listening to the surf, mostly just sitting in silence as the sun set the water on fire. She wondered if Daniel ever thought of it, or if he’d ever visited it after she’d left, at the beach you had to go left to get to the rock, past all the tourists and the sound of the crashing waves, the sand…

 

....felt chilly under her feet as she walked along the darkened beach. She followed the deep set of footprints as they tracked across the sand, moving north toward the Ritz, the four star hotel perched over the opposite end of the beach from Sunset Rock. She didn’t like walking barefoot on the North Coast sand -- it always felt pebbly and chilly, though she did like the way it crunched as she walked. Distantly, she heard the rhythmic rushing of the waves, the sound strangely muted and indistinct. She walked along the beach, following the deep depressions. It never occurred to her to wonder where the tracks were leading, she just felt an odd compulsion to catch up to (Daniel!) whomever had made them. She paused as a feeling of expectancy settled over the hushed landscape. She felt as though monumental events were taking place just out of hearing, like a subaudible hum felt through the chilly sand, as if she might find a river of electric current just under the surface if she dug too far with her toes.

She resumed walking, continuing until a glint of reflected light in the sand brought her to a reluctant stop, her curiosity piqued. There were several reflective dots in a line. She knelt for a closer look, tentatively reaching out with her right hand to touch one of the larger reflections. The sand was damp, her fingertips coming away stained black in the faint light from the hotel perched on the cliff. She peered at her fingers in the uncertain light, realizing with consternation that her first instinct had been right -- it was blood. She wiped her cooling fingertips in the sand, cleansing them in the grit. Worry filled her along with a nameless fear. Someone (Daniel!) was in trouble; she didn’t know what she could do to help, but she was determined not to stand idle. She stood, beginning to jog along the cliff face, grateful the sand became firmer as the ground dipped, bringing the tide lines further up the beach toward the vertical rocky cliffs to her right.

Nicolette experienced a moment of sudden lucidity, realizing without a doubt that she was dreaming. Relief filled her as she realized that she could leave this unpleasant and menacing dream any time she wanted.

Searing pain tore across the skin of her forehead. She screamed, her knees buckling in shock as she clapped her hands over the burning skin, expecting to find a red hot piece of steel sinking into the bones of her skull, expecting to feel the bone popping from the heat. Distantly, she was surprised when her fingers found wind-cooled skin and nothing else. She sat hunched over her knees as the pain increased for a beat longer, then slowly began to subside, leaving faint electric tingles dancing over the pained area.

As the fear subsided, she panted, sensing the approach of some inexplicable rubicon that she had to cross before it was too late. Her dream awareness was quickly sublimated by this urgency, urgency which quickly resuscitated her fear. She struggled to her feet and began running, moving away from the cliff to the damper, firmer sand in an effort to go faster. Ahead of her, she saw the promontory underneath the hotel; huge, ancient stone pilings reaching up from the beach to support the cliff face, to keep the gradual decay of the soft shale from spreading toward the foundation of the hotel. Her urgency elided with almost certain knowledge that Daniel was ahead of her and in dire trouble.

In the darkness of the rocky cliff face, she saw a glimmer in the shadows, something metallic catching the light as it moved. A quick glance at the sand showed more blood, more foot steps. She followed the trail right up to the rocks, pausing at the base of the pillared cliffs as she began looking for a way up, her panic rising.

She gasped in fear and startlement as a hoarse voice rose up out of the darkness, “Who… What are you doing here? You were not summoned.”

Nicolette stared into the deep shadows, realizing there was a man reclining amongst the rocks, a sword clutched in his right hand.

“Summoned? I…was in the motel, I woke up here on this beach. I followed Daniel’s footsteps and the blood trail. It just seemed…incredibly important that I get here before it…it was too late. I thought it might be Daniel’s blood…”

She shook her head in confusion, her voice trailing off.

He studied her thoughtfully, then breathed in, awe coloring his words, “You share a true love bond! I’ve only heard such a thing was possible, but…” His voice drifted off as he was momentarily lost in thought.

“Yes, I see! The bond! It seems I’ve unintentionally marked you as well, my dear -- I wish I’d realized your connection sooner!” He sighed, as he began sagging back, looking as though he was succumbing to his exhaustion, “I’m sorry for dragging you into this...but perhaps the both of you will be greater for it. This is good news, I think, though I doubt you’ll think so.”

She picked her way over the sand and rocks and knelt by his side at his gesture, drawing a sharp breath as she saw the blood soaking his green and white shirt.

He raised his hand, cupping her cheek reassuringly. His hand on her cheek prevented her from flinching away, his hand surprisingly strong despite his injuries. He lightly touched her forehead with a bloody, sand gritted fingertip.

 

Nicolette jerked awake, screaming, her hands clamped over her forehead just over the bridge of her nose. She sat up in the motel bed as the blankets spilled away from her, panting with fear and terrible burning agony…though the pain quickly faded. Within moments, it felt like a very mild sunburn…and even that faded as she awakened further.

“What the hell was that?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

She realized she was practically yelling into he darkened hotel room and forced herself to calm down.

She sat for several moments longer, hands clamped over the tingling patch of skin, trying to remember the dream. As the panic subsided, she glanced at the red numbers on the cheap digital clock by the bed: 03:34.

Nicolette swore under her breath as she realized that she needed to be at Coffee Beach by 5 -- and there was little hope that she’d be able to get back to sleep by the time the alarm rang at 04:15.

With a groan, she extricated herself from sweat-soaked sheets and headed to the shower, forcibly pushing thoughts of scary dreams from her mind. She paused by the mirror, but aside from a faint pinkness which was a little larger than a quarter, there was no other indication anything untoward had happened.

She breathed a long sigh of relief before turning to step into the shower.

It was just a stress-induced dream, she told herself.

But the vague soreness on her forehead troubled her for a long time afterward.

Years, as it turned out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve: Ground Zero

 

DANIEL lay in the back seat of his truck, shivering in the pre-dawn stillness, his damp jacket providing little warmth. He longed for his own bed, but couldn’t find the impetus to move, his alcohol-driven stupor weighing him down like a chilly leaden blanket. He was dimly aware of the ocean, the dull roar only audible because of the early morning silence. Self-pity washed over him, but he quickly tamped it down with a mental jeer; his misery was his own fault, after all. His phone hadn’t appreciated being soaked with sea-water, leaving him marooned in his truck until he sorted that out.

Serves you right for passing out on the beach, dumb-ass, he thought miserably, guilt and sorrow sweeping over him at the thought of his phone dying because of his negligence.

He shook his head, his cheek pressed against the fabric of the back seat as he suppressed his sudden alcohol-driven sentimentality. It had been a long time since he’d gotten that drunk; seeing Nicolette had stirred up feelings that he had finally started to bury, bringing his baffled rage surging back to the foreground, along with his frustration and resentment.

He shrank into the seat as he heard a quiet ticking against the passenger window over his head. He listened to the sound, unable to identify it, clenching his eyes shut as the sound touched something in him, grief welling up, suffusing his thoughts. It took an interminably long time before he recognized the sound as water from a broken sprinkler intermittently striking the glass, the sound reverberating through his memory.

Nikki was crying, he thought disjointedly. She was the only one there that wept openly…

The water cycled back, the quiet sound eliding with memories of Ramona, his mother, carrying a handful of dirt toward the open hole, the soil ticking against the lacquered box. His thoughts fuzzed apart, suffused with grief welling upward through the momentary resonance, dream and memory eliding as

 

the priest intoned, “Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brother Connor Hayes.”

The chilly sun beat down on the back of Daniel’s neck; his black suit was an icy furnace, magnifying the sun’s heat directly onto his skin, despite his shivering. The discomfort was a welcome distraction from the ceremony. He had one hand on his little sister Audrey’s shoulder, keeping her uncomfortable squirming under control. At 8 years old, he wasn’t sure she fully understood what was going on, but he could see she was frightened by the solemnity of the affair, with everyone acting so strangely. He could feel her tension, her need for comfort as she strained to go to Ramona, their mother. He knew she wanted to cry, but was afraid of getting in trouble.

He understood her need for maternal reassurance.

He glanced sideways at Ramona, in her black dress and black veil, staring into the middle distance, refusing to look at the black lacquered box resting on the small wooden pedestal behind the deep rectangular hole waiting to receive it. As the priest continued with his prayer, she remained expressionless; only the hint of puffiness around her eyes giving the lie to her stony calm.

[_ He wanted to shout at her that it was okay to feel -- that it was okay to express her feelings. He knew her calm strength was a facade; he had sat on the stairs every night since his father’s death, guarding her grief when she was alone in the empty master bedroom. He wanted to howl in protest, to kick over the black lacquered box, to tear up the priest's prayer notes -- anything to stop this ritual from going forward, as though it might prevent his father from leaving. He wanted to scream at the box, We still need you! _]

He glanced at his mother and swallowed, forcing the scream back down as he stared at the black glistening lacquer, its surface broken by a small golden harp on a green flag proclaiming his father’s pride in his ancestry. Daniel had been the one to pick it out; at the funeral home, his mother had stared at the catalog, blankly flipping the same pages back and forth until Daniel had finally intervened.

It must be hot in there, he thought disjointedly. On its heels came the stray thought, Probably not as hot as the oven…

[_ He made an inarticulate noise in his throat as the scream threatened to push its way out. He closed his eyes and swallowed again, forcing his throat to unlock enough for him to breathe. He needed to be strong for the family, for this mother. He felt his throat locking again at the thought of his ER RN mother -- normally so capable and completely in command -- barely able to function through her grief; he didn’t think Audrey or Ryan understood. He would protect them; he had promised his father that he would. From an early age, his father had impressed upon him that as someone with strength it was his obligation to help those without. At the time, his father’s words had been unexpected, apropos of nothing; now they seemed tragically prescient. _]

[_ Daniel banished the memory, his father’s earnest expression making his eyes sting. Conner had always seemed like a giant to Daniel; so full of unexpected knowledge and opinions, yet managing to balance his own passions with the burgeoning intellectual growth of his children, allowing them to find their own way. It still seemed impossible that he was gone -- that he could be reduced to seven pounds of ashes in a box. _]

He glanced at his brother, reading his hurt bafflement as the priest’s intonation changed, suggesting the prayer was almost over.

He jumped when he felt Nicolette’s cool hand touch his. Their fingers automatically intertwined. He listened to her weeping beside him, her grief surprising; he hadn’t realized she had gotten to know his father so well, or cared about Connor so much. He wanted to reach across and hug her, to offer her some comfort, but his howls of protest were too close to the surface; he couldn’t let himself get pulled into her grief lest his own resolve waver. He doubted he’d be able to get himself back under control if he allowed that first crack in his resolve.

Ryan and Audrey and his mother were depending on him.

Later, he thought. When things settle, we’ll talk and I’ll help her feel better. Later we can try and make sense of this together.

He closed her out of his thoughts, seeking stillness, praying it would last long enough to finish the ceremony and see the family home. He didn’t know what would come next, what new emergency would follow the interment, but one way or another he’d deal with it; there was no other option. He stared at his mother resentfully out of the corner of his eye; years passed before he was able to articulate his resentment: she had stolen his grief, was forcing him to try and fill the impossible void left by his father.

I’m only eighteen!, he shouted in his mind, I’m not ready for this!

Beside him, Nicolette winced as his unconscious grip became crushing, though he stood with his eyes closed, expressionless, breathing deeply. She squeezed back, knowing his stillness was a lie, hoping that somewhere he could feel her counter pressure, could read her sorrow and her love for him through that painful contact.

He slowly turned back to the grave waiting to receive his father’s ashes, his eyes returning to the simple black lacquered box. He watched a wispy white bit of cloud drifting in reflection as he waited impatiently for the priest to finish the ceremony, only distantly aware of Nicolette’s grief or his brother’s puzzled hurt or Audrey’s fear.

He watched as two attendants gently lowered the box into the grave. The priest paused in his prayer, waiting patiently for Ramona. Daniel gently nudged his mother who jumped, startled, then nodded slightly, her stony calm momentarily shaken. She knelt for a handful of dirt, a red rose clutched in her off hand.

When things are easier, he promised. There’ll be time for me and Nikki to…

The sound of soil striking the lacquered box momentarily distracted him, the quiet rattle of

 

water hitting the window bringing him partly back to consciousness.

That was ground zero with Nicolette, he thought, his remembered grief and pain momentarily spilling through the alcohol-soaked cracks in the fortress he’d built around those memories. The thought briefly floated on the surface of his thoughts, the water from the broken sprinkler ticking against the passenger window over his head. He tried to hold onto it, knowing it was important, that he’d want to revisit it later…

He shivered violently, wishing his phone wasn’t dead, that he hadn’t killed it with his carelessness.

I wish I could take it back, he thought, momentarily confused which memory he was addressing, his observation slowly sinking back beneath the turbid currents of his mind.

The warranty probably doesn’t cover death by sea-water, he thought, struggling to recapture the idea as it slipped away.

He shivered violently again, then hazed back into unconsciousness until Tommy finally found him several hours later.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen: Ryan

 

DANIEL sat on the raised deck of his mother’s home, watching over the kids playing in the back yard below. It was Sunday, two days after his disastrous encounter with Nicolette, the day after he’d woken up in his truck feeling slobbery and gritty. He had awakened in the back seat, listening to the predawn stillness, wanting desperately to go back to his apartment for a shower and some dry clothes. He quickly found he was way too drunk to drive -- even the short distance back to his flat.

He had hazed in and out of consciousness until dawn brightened the grey overcast sky, feeling miserable and sick, too sick to muster the will to leave, but not drunk enough to pass out again. In the end, Tommy had tracked him down and given Daniel a lift home to his little apartment, where he’d slept off the rest of his bender. How Tommy had found him, Daniel could only guess, though he wryly wondered how many of his and Nicolette’s old haunts Tommy had visited until he found Daniel folded up in the back seat of his truck, shivering in a semi-drunken stupor under his damp jacket. Annoying as the guy could be, he seemed to be there when he was needed most, though he had been aggravatingly unsympathetic. Daniel suspected that he’d been laughing at Daniel’s every wince, groan, and dry heave as he rode in Tommy’s open topped US Army Korean War-era antique.

Though he had spent the majority of his Saturday afternoon recovering, Daniel had called Shelly and Dane, offering his apologies for ruining their evening with his (temper tantrum, his mind unhelpfully supplied) reaction to seeing Nicolette so unexpectedly. He had even called Tommy, intending to apologize and thank him for the rescue, but had only reached Tommy’s voicemail. Daniel wondered if Tommy was screening his calls.

It’s the most annoying thing he could be doing under the circumstances, so yeah…seems likely.

He took a pull on his beer, mostly just for taste, then walked to the railing, watching as a group of kids began playing a complicated game of tag while the older kids tossed a football back and forth, waiting for their turn in the backyard. For as long as he could remember, Sundays had always been dedicated family days, days where the Hayes family gathered to go to Mass, then meet for a post-Mass lunch most often with his immediate family and occasionally with his extended family. Originally it had been both, his Mother’s extended family -- her great multi-generational brood of relatives -- and his Father’s siblings and their kids. While the two families had little in common, years of Sundays had finally created a hesitant bond. From there, they had slowly found other commonalities -- love of the 49ers and the Sharks, hatred of the Dodgers and Yankees, love of the military.

His father’s death had been like a bomb going off in the fault lines between the two families; the Irish half (well, sixteenth, if you stuck strictly to numbers) had gradually stopped showing up.

He sighed as his alcohol dreams returned to him, grief seeping through his thoughts like blood from an incompletely healed wound. He hadn’t thought about the funeral in years. He still occasionally spoke with his father’s siblings and some of his cousins from that side, but they had drifted away over the years. By the time Daniel had mustered out, they had largely quit all family gatherings, even Christmas and Easter.

He frowned, knowing he was avoiding the real issue.

It all comes back to Nikki, doesn’t it? So many things changed when she left. Now that she’s back, what does it mean?

He sighed, frustrated and conflicted. Her departure (abandonment!) had left too much damage to make her a reasonable option, but his mind kept replaying that first moment, that instant of unadulterated vindication and gratification that she’d come back, replaying all the little details -- the scar through her eyebrow, the dark sad eyes, the ink on her wrist, the promise ring -- the only jewelry he’d seen on her hands...her hesitant almost plaintive smile.

You crushed that, didn’t you, asshole? He thought, as a confusing mix of primal satisfaction and guilty shame surged through him….and anger that he should feel ashamed.

[_ So now what? It’s over -- whatever we had was destroyed a long time ago...but knowing that she’s here, that she’s maybe less than half a mile away somewhere... _]

He shook his head, frustrated. He had considered begging off, skipping this Sunday meal with the family, especially since he knew it was going to be one of the bigger gatherings, but he felt…adrift. He desperately needed something to anchor him, to give him at least a hint of stability to ground him so he could figure out what to do next.

He’d jerked awake early that morning, feeling sweaty and disturbed, wondering if he’d had a repeat of that weird whiskey dream the other night. He had briefly considered trying to go back to sleep, but once he’d closed his eyes, his mind had stubbornly refused to let go of the problem, and he’d found himself wide awake, staring at the clock and realizing that he could still meet with the family for Mass. Once he’d returned from the Army, he’d fallen into the habit of skipping Mass, but today had decided to go, especially knowing that his brother was visiting.

Berkeley was a little more than an hour away on a good traffic day, but Ryan never missed the traditional Sunday family gathering. He had hoped to get a chance to get Ryan’s opinion, but with the general madhouse atmosphere that prevailed, he had yet to get that chance. He and Ryan had never been very close, but his brother had a way of taking apart problems presented to him that often exposed hidden complexities or unacknowledged details. Ryan was also unsparingly honest and direct -- a conversation with him could be infuriating and humbling, but enlightening as well. Daniel needed that -- needed his brother’s opinion to help him get a grip on the situation without his own emotions getting in the way. Ryan had a knack for filtering emotions separately from the hard data.

Daniel leaned back, taking a pull of the beer he was enjoying. The day was crisp; summer hadn’t yet arrived in full force; he suspected that this was probably the first Meeting of the Ortiz Brood now that summer was finally starting to show. He frowned as Ryan stepped out of the house, pulling the sliding glass door shut as he approached Daniel, two beers in his fist.

Daniel studied Ryan as he approached; Ryan stood a couple of inches shorter, though he’d inherited their father’s genes more than Daniel had, Ryan’s blonde hair and hazel eyes contrasting with Daniel’s own dark hair and brown eyes. They had a similar build, but Daniel still worked out, unwilling to lose the muscular physique that the Army had given him. Ryan, by contrast, was less physical in his pursuits, giving him a more wiry build, though Daniel knew that he was in good shape. The handful of times they’d gone jogging together, Daniel had been genuinely surprised to find Ryan not only keeping up, but sometimes challenging him; he supposed Ryan found it annoying to be out of shape, and had concluded that the most efficient way to solve the problem had been running…or probably swimming, since Ryan would probably think swimming was a useful skill, making it a more optimal solution than just running.

Christ, just thinking like Ryan is exhausting, he thought wryly.

Ryan sidled up to Daniel and leaned over the railing, mimicking Daniel as he rested his forearms on the sun-warmed metal, wordlessly depositing the unopened beer on the ground (probably having noticed that Daniel already had a half full beer in his hand). They stood side by side in silence for a minute, taking in the backyard with the gaggle of playing children. Daniel wondered if Ryan even noticed the children; his brother had an almost freakish ability to disregard information that wasn’t pertinent to whatever had his intellectual interest.

“I bought that Camaro -- I’ll have to get it towed out of the storage lot sometime in the next couple of weeks.”

Daniel nodded, “I’ll call Thomas -- I think he’s got a slot free right now. You found an engine you like for it, yet?”

Ryan shook his head, a pensive expression on his face, “No, but I have a couple leads. I’ll let you know.”

Daniel nodded absently; the one thing he and his brother shared was an interest in cars. Ryan’s interest was more theoretical -- he loved mechanical systems, loved the way all the components fit together and worked in conjunction with each other, especially under stress. Daniel was loosely a member of the grease monkey community, but he didn’t know anybody that could build or rebuild an engine like his brother. When Daniel had bought an old Mustang shortly after returning home, he’d been genuinely surprised at Ryan’s interest in working on it. In the end, they’d worked weekends on it for nearly a year, restoring it back to its original beauty. When he’d resold it to a collector, Daniel's share of the proceeds had funded the purchase of his truck; Ryan probably used it to pay back some of his student loans.

Ryan’s primary interest had been restoring the engine. He’d been willing to help with other things, but the farther he got from the engine, the less time he was willing to spend. The old Challenger they’d worked on afterward hadn’t been as profitable, but the hours they’d spent working on it had cemented a sort of truce between them that hadn’t existed before. Once they’d sold the Challenger, Ryan had insisted on finding a classic Camaro and rebuilding it from the ground up. Daniel suspected it would be their most challenging project, but it also promised to be a great distraction from his other problems.

“You seem unsettled.”

Daniel glanced at his brother in surprise, wondering if Ryan had spoken to Tommy, “What do you mean?”

Ryan snorted, shaking his head slightly without returning Daniel’s gaze, “You haven’t asked how much it cost or where I found it or double checked what make and model.”

Ryan waited patiently in silence, moving only to sip his beer.

While they waited, Audrey, their younger adopted sister, stepped out of the sliding glass door onto the deck. She was middle height, perhaps five-five or five-six with glossy black hair. She always seemed lively, her brown eyes sparkling with enthusiasm for whatever caught her interest. She had an oval face, with strong facial structure and a ready smile. Daniel knew she was at least half Malaysian, her ancestry giving her a swarthy complexion that gave her an exotic aspect (though he had learned from experience that actually using that adjective -- ‘exotic’ -- with her would likely draw a sharp rejoinder). She grinned as she saw them leaning against the railing, “Mom says Lynn’s a keeper, Ry.”

Ryan twisted, looking back over his shoulder at his younger sister as he expressionlessly replied, “I know.”

Her smile widened as she approached, “She’s in the kitchen, helping Mom y las tías con la cooking. If you cut this one loose, I think they’re going to kill you.”

Ryan stared at her, holding his silence when she pushed her way between the two brothers. She grinned at Daniel as he grunted in disapproval, “Thanks!”

Daniel tried to glare at her, but found himself almost instantly losing the battle to remain stone faced, answering her grin with a rueful smile of his own, “Hey sis. How’d you escape? I can’t believe the tías would let you go without a fight.”

She rolled her eyes, adding a very put-upon sigh, “I didn’t. I’m on parole. I’m supposed to be checking up on Tío Fred to see if the grill is ready for the meat, yet.”

She glanced back and forth between her brothers, noting their silence, perhaps using what Daniel and Audrey agreed was “Sibling Telepathy” (Ryan refused to use the term or even acknowledge it when they used it) to intuit that there was was a serious conversation going on. A slow smile grew as she realized that something interesting was indeed happening, clearly hoping to be included in the discussion.

Her smile is one of her best features, Daniel thought distractedly, whomever she’s dating probably folds like a cheap suit whenever she turns it on him.

Ryan glanced at her sideways, “Hey Bird -- we’re out of beer. Go and get us replacements. One of the foreign ones on the bottom shelf.”

Her smile faded, Daniel’s guilt swelling at her obvious disappointment, “But…”

Ryan cut in, adding, “Bring this one back to the fridge,” indicating the beer he’d brought out earlier.

“But…”

“And bring in the empties, would’ya?”

She frowned, clearly hoping to sulk her way into the conversation, but almost immediately gave up the attempt.

“Fine,” she huffed, picking up the unopened beer, then taking Ryan’s empty and forcefully pulling the half full beer from Daniel’s hand.

“Hey! I was drinking that!”

She ignored him as she headed back into the house.

Daniel glared at his brother, but it was like glaring at a stone to make it move. He shook his head, resolving to speak with her, to make it up to her later.

He gave up with a sigh.

His brother turned, looking at Daniel consideringly, then shrugged, “I’ll stop doing it when it stops working. So, what’s bothering you?”

Daniel frowned, unsatisfied. He briefly considered his options, then decided to save the conversation about Audrey for another time.

“Nicolette’s come back.”

Ryan nodded thoughtfully, considering this information.

“Explains things. How’s she looking? Did anything stand out?”

Daniel frowned, puzzled by the odd question. It wasn’t like Ryan to focus on something so superficial. He wondered what he was thinking. “Like Nicolette, man. I thought if I ever saw her again it would be like looking at a stranger -- and it kind of was -- but it was also like looking backward in time.”

Silence fell between them as Ryan considered this, “Her family is gone; I doubt she was very popular at school. What do you think she wants?”

“Wants? How the fuck should I know what she wants? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking you…”

Ryan grinned, “For advice with the ladies?”

Daniel stared at him blankly for a moment, then snorted as he turned back to the yard filled with playing children. Both he and Ryan had never had too much trouble with women, leading Daniel to wonder if it was something that ran in the family, though Ryan was far more mercenary in his romantic habits.

“For advice with Nicolette.”

“Has she asked you for anything? Asked for money?”

Daniel shook his head, “Not yet, though we’ve barely had a chance to speak. And thank you very much for your cynicism.”

“Well, that might be a good place to start, then. If she asks for money, I’d walk.”

Daniel growled in irritation, but couldn’t think of a logical counterargument.

After a moment of silence, Ryan continued, “All I’m saying is it might be in your best interests to be a little cautious until you have the whole sight picture.”

“‘Sight picture’? Did you read a dummies book for shooting or something?”

He shrugged, “I read the US Army Ranger’s training manual, so kind of, yeah.”

“Very funny.”

The corner of Ryan’s mouth briefly quirked into a smile, a flicker of movement briefly glimpsed under the surface calm, but he remained silent, his eyes never leaving Daniel’s. The silence stretched, becoming uncomfortable under Ryan’s unblinking scrutiny.

“Stop lizarding out. You’re starting to piss me off.”

“I’m going to call Uncle Nick and see if he can pull her file for us.”

“Now you really are pissing me off.”

Ryan shrugged indifferently, “You don’t have to read it.”

Daniel shook his head, wondering why he’d wanted to speak with his brother in the first place.

Ryan surprised him, as he often did, after the silence had stretched on for a little while, “Dan, she messed you up when she left. Bad. I’d prefer not to see that happen again. I’m not sure Mom could take that again, for all that she’s the strongest of us.”

Ryan hesitated before adding, “Just worried about you, hermano.”

Daniel sighed, “I know, Ryan. I know.”

After another lengthy but amicable pause, Ryan asked, “What is it that you want to get out of this?”

Daniel studied his brother, trying to gauge his feelings. He was surprised to realize that he hadn’t taken the time to think beyond his initial response to seeing her, that he was still reacting to the shock. He tried to wade through his feelings, to find a logical conclusion that seemed realistic. After a moment he gave up, “I don’t know, Ryan. I thought it would be good to be angry at her, to say all the things that I’ve been…”

“Obsessing over?”

Daniel snorted in irritation, “That, and all the things I’ve been struggling with.”

When the silence began to stretch, he prompted, “…And?”

“And it wasn’t very satisfying. Honestly, raging at her…didn’t feel like it resolved anything.”

Ryan nodded thoughtfully, “Well, you’d better figure out what you want; but you need to figure out what she wants first.”

Daniel nodded, but found he didn’t have anything to add.

They stood side by side, leaning on the railing long after it became abundantly clear Audrey wasn’t coming back.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen: Burdens

 

DANIEL sat in the kitchen watching his mother as she finished priming the dishwasher. Audrey, still in a huff, had retreated to her bedroom downstairs. He suspected he’d have to apologize to her before he left; Ryan likely wouldn’t until he saw her hurt feelings as a problem that hindered him in some way, even then only if an apology was the most efficient solution. Ryan probably didn’t care if Audrey’s feelings were hurt -- it probably didn’t register on him in a conscious way. Daniel had few doubts about Ryan’s loyalty to Audrey and his willingness to protect her, but sometimes it was hard to see beyond his general dispassion. Daniel, in contrast, actually cared whether Audrey was upset.

He’d been sitting in the kitchen for the last fifteen minutes after helping Ramona load the dishwasher. Tio Chava had left half an hour earlier with his young wife and their kids; he was always the last to leave, the slowest to take the hint, but the first to show up with his family if there was free food. He was a good guy, Daniel reflected, but he had a bad case of ‘youngest sibling syndrome’, as his mother put it, used to taking advantage of his youngest sibling status, while clearly idolizing his older sister. Ramona unhurriedly prepared a cup of tea, her gaze abstracted as she poured the water into a green glazed mug.

She sat across from him as she blew over the top of her mug. She’d been surreptitiously studying her eldest son since he’d settled in the kitchen, taking her time with the dishwasher and the tea to give herself more time to think. She wrapped her hands around the mug, debating whether she should wait him out or go directly to the heart of the matter. Two decades of motherhood had given her a finely tuned instinct for her children’s moods. She suspected she knew what was coming, and dreaded it.

While she decided how to initiate the conversation with Daniel, he studied her, reflecting that his mother’s relative youth still surprised him. She was a small woman, probably only a hair’s-breadth over five feet fall, with a heart-shaped, expressive face and lively brown eyes. Her hair was still mostly its original color, though there was starting to be a little grey mixed in with the lustrous black. It was currently in a simple pony tail, though he remembered when his father was still alive that she used to wear it down more often than not. She wasn’t a vain woman, but Daniel knew that she was an orderly woman, capable of functioning in extremely stressful environments (she was an ER nurse, after all). She could bring order to a room through sheer force of will and rarely needed to raise her voice or rely on threats to do it. Daniel didn’t know how she managed it; sometimes he wondered if she had missed her calling by not enlisting.

They’d be calling her ‘The General’ long before she actually got the rank, he thought wryly as she sipped her tea.

After a brief companionable silence, she broke into his thoughts, “What is bothering you, mijo? I have not seen you carrying such heavy storm clouds in a long time.”

He stared at her in surprise, momentarily at a loss for words. While it was true that he’d been hovering in the kitchen hoping to speak with her, he hadn’t really decided what he wanted to say, or what he wanted out of a conversation with her. She, like Ryan, often had a no-nonsense way of taking apart a problem, and an equally disconcerting way of reading between the lines and deducing what was bothering him. He had hesitated, because speaking to his mother was also likely to earn him a lecture about his lifestyle or a conversation about going to college. He briefly debated denying anything was wrong, but he had never been able to lie to Ramona -- she always saw right through his subterfuges and attempts at dissembling (his parents had long ago dissuaded him and his siblings from telling lies with the belt that likely still hung in his mother’s closet -- though he doubted it had seen use in a long time).

“Nicolette is back,” he answered simply.

She nodded, surprising him with her calm acceptance. He wondered if she already knew -- though it didn’t seem likely that Ryan would tell her about their earlier conversation so readily.

“Did Ryan say something?” he asked, stalling.

She shook her head as she sipped her tea, though she didn’t immediately answer.

She looks tired, he thought, surprised at the observation, feeling a vague fluttery worry about her health. After his father passed, he never took Ramona’s health for granted.

Ramona, perhaps intuiting some of his worry, smiled as she reached across the countertop and patted his hand, “No, mijo. She called me the day she got back.”

She sighed heavily, almost visibly aging as she added, “It wasn’t a pleasant conversation.”

Daniel leaned back, surprised and a little hurt, “How long has she been back? How long have you known?”

“Dos semanas, más o menos.”

The silence between them stretched for several long seconds before he quietly asked, “You’ve known for almost two weeks…and you never told me? Why?”

Ramona studied him, intuiting his internal struggle to keep his anger and frustration in check. She abruptly deflated, her mouth turning down as she shook her head slightly, “I was trying to think of the good way to break the news to you. Things have been going so well for you lately—“

“Mom, I broke up with Carla.”

She glared at him, clearly not appreciating the interruption, while simultaneously disagreeing with his interpretation of the breakup as she emphatically reiterated, “Things have been going so well for you lately, I did not want to disrupt things. I wanted to tell you, mijo. I was going to. But after that first conversation with her, I…”

She faltered, surprising Daniel with her uncertainty, “I was too…”

“Conflicted?”

She smiled at him as she agreed, “Conflicted. Then too much time passed, and I was not sure how to start. I supposed one way or another, I was going to mention it today, but you did it first.”

His annoyance crept into his voice, “‘Too much time’? Mom, that’s bu—“

She glared at him.

“—not cool.”

She relaxed, “No, it’s not, and for that I apologize. I should have called you the day she called me.”

He sighed, feeling some of the emotion drain away, “Why didn’t you?”

“Daniel…when she left, there was a little while I thought we were losing you. That plus your father passing…”

Her voice trailed off as she looked away, momentarily lost in thought. Daniel waited patiently until she continued a moment later, “You were so filled with anger, getting into many fights. No one could reach you. Then you had that fight with your brother…”

She shook her head slowly, blinking rapidly, the memory clearly still disturbing.

“I remember something one of your tías said back then. ‘If ever there was trouble, you would go to jail; but your brother would go to prison’. That night, that night I almost lost both my sons.”

She stopped, staring down into her mug. He was shocked at the slow realization that his mother was fighting back tears, though it barely registered on her face. He slowly realized his mother’s words were uncomfortably true; that Daniel nearly hospitalized his brother that night, but if pushed hard enough, his brother might have reacted with cold violence, indifferent to the consequences until it was too late. He shuddered, the thought once again occurring to him that perhaps things with his brother weren’t ever going to be totally comfortable.

“That night, I was certain I had lost you.”

She reached out and placed her hand on the side of his neck. He could feel the tension in her forearm, surprised at the strength hidden in her diminutive frame as she gently pulled his head toward her, until she could touch her forehead to his. He was surprised to hear the tension in her voice when she continued, speaking quietly but with feeling, “But we didn’t.”

They stayed like that, touching foreheads for almost half a minute before she released him and sat back.

“When you joined the Army, I was worried we might lose you all over again -- you were in such a bad place. Putting you somewhere bad men would be shooting at you just seemed...”

She shook her head slowly, unwilling to finish the thought out loud, as if doing so might revoke their good fortune.

“When you came back you were struggling with the drink, the fights, the arrests; it was a long time before you started to be yourself again.”

He looked down at the table as his mother spoke. She had never discussed what it had been like for her, what she had suffered as a result of what he had since realized was a rageful death wish. For the first time, he stepped back and really allowed himself to empathize with his mother for the last seven years, how it impacted her and the family. Shame warred with resignation; it had been hard on the family, but he had made the best choices he could.

“It’s not fair to the girl, but I blamed her -- blamed her for hurting you, for running away from us after all we offered her. You were not the only one that felt rejected, I think. When she called, it was hard to hold back the last seven years -- not all of it was her fault.”

His eyebrows rose with surprise. Ramona had never shared this with him either -- had never even hinted at it.

He shook his head as he quietly interjected, “I was the one that put the family through all that, mom -- not her.”

He hesitated, “And if I’m being honest…I think I may have had a part in driving her away after Dad…”

Ramona started to wrap her hands around her mug, only to frown as she realized it was empty. He watched as she refilled the cup with hot water, reusing the same tea bag. Her back was to him when she continued, “Perhaps. I was worried the effect her return would have on you, bringing back that terrible time. With such an unknown quantity, I was worried what she might say or do. Mijo…even now, you are not out of the Wilderness, yet, I judge.”

He frowned, considering this, then nodded slowly. He knew she was right, though he felt he was farther out of the woods than his mother probably realized.

Ramona hesitated; Daniel could hear genuine regret when she spoke, still facing away from him, “I was…very unkind in our conversation. I suppose shame made me hesitate to tell you as well. She surprised me with her call and I was not ready for it. After that…well…it seemed like calling her back and pressing her for more information would not be appropriate.”

She returned to the island, sitting across from Daniel as she contemplatively continued, “That girl… I do not know what to make of her.”

“What did you talk about?”

She smiled sadly as she patted the back of his hand, shaking her head, “Nada, mijo. Nada that I would be proud to repeat. I was very unkind -- as if she needed more unkindness in her life.”

She hesitated, momentarily lost in thought, replaying her memories of Nicolette, “What Rose put that girl through…” she spoke musingly, lost in thought.

Daniel snagged her hand before she could withdraw it, watching as she lightly curled her fingers around his.

“It was bad,” he said, more statement than question.

She shook her head, the contradiction momentarily catching him off guard, “It was criminal.”

Ramona turned his hand over, looking at the scars that criss-crossed it. He studied her, smiling faintly at the sad look that crossed her face as she ran her thumb over the hard, ridged flesh where the missing bits used to be. After a long contemplative silence, she picked up the thread, “Rose never really understood how a real family works.”

He frowned, puzzled at the seeming non-sequitur as his mother continued, “Rose was a domineering woman, to say the least -- it is a miracle that her daughter no was...was not crushed into a jellyfish, like her husband. Nicolette had an escape here, with our family. I think it probably drove Rose to distraction that her daughter was able to find a place to rest, compounded by the fact that she needed at least a thin veneer of normalcy for appearances, and she could not sever the relationship between our families -- especially since we lived across the street from her. So I think she did the next best thing.

“Rose aimed that girl into the heart of our family like a missile. She never stopped her from spending time with us, but she bent her will toward breaking her daughter, hoping to reach through her to us. She never could stand the thought that not 100 feet away, her daughter might have allies against her; it was not enough to punish her daughter.”

“She wanted to punish us as well,” he finished quietly.

She nodded, “Just so. I suspect that once she realized her daughter had become part of our family, she made it a point of trying to destroy ours through the poor girl. If she was not so crazy, she might have realized that we support each other, and that she might hurt us, but we would still be a family afterward. She wanted to punish us for offering santuario…and she tried do it through her daughter. After Nicolette ran away, we were hurt as she intended…but Rose was isolated. I suspect Henry found the strength to stand up to Rose after that.”

Daniel nodded, “Nikki’s little brother said something to that effect just after Rose died.”

He stared out the window over the kitchen sink, lost in thought for a long moment, “Thank you for telling me all this. I didn’t know.”

He hesitated before continuing, “But I don’t know if I can let it go, Mom. I don’t know if I can forgive her for leaving the way she did, leaving us all wondering and worrying. With no hope of closure. But I can’t let her go, either.”

Ramona nodded, but said nothing.

“I loved her, Mom.“

She smiled sadly, understanding.

“I know, mijo. I think we all did.”

Daniel knocked on the door jamb by his sister’s bedroom. Audrey was sitting on her bed, her laptop open in front of her, a book facedown on the coverlet, a pair of studio headphones in her lap. He watched as she lowered her phone, frowning at him.

“Hey sis…”

He was surprised when she met his gaze, then purposefully picked up her headphones, clearly intending to make a statement by shutting him out. He was surprised she was that upset, that she had taken their earlier rebuff that hard. Seeing his chance to speak with her slipping away, he blurted, “Nikki’s back!”

She hesitated, still frowning. For one instant, he could see the conflict in her eyes as anger warred with her curiosity. After a moment, her hands dropped back into her lap, loosely holding her headphones.

“That’s what we were talking about on the deck.”

She looked down, momentarily lost in thought.

“Audrey…I’m sorry for pushing you out of the conversation that way.”

She looked up, cocking her head to the side as she considered his apology, her dark eyes still veiled with hostility. It was unlike her to be so angry, so unwilling to let her anger go. He hadn’t realized at the time how upset she was.

After a long pause, she finally nodded, deciding she would have to accept his apology if she wanted to hear more. He suspected Ryan would be surprised the next time he visited -- he likely would have some reparations of his own to make.

There was nothing flippant in her voice when she finally asked, “What are you going to do?”

He sighed, relieved that she was willing to speak with him, her willingness to converse an indicator of forgiveness. He genuinely liked Audrey, and hated the thought that she wouldn’t be willing to speak with him.

“I don’t know, Aud. I’m still…reeling a little bit. Our first meeting didn’t go very well. I think I might have made a mess of things. I was surprised, I wasn’t ready to see her.”

She nodded, the black plastic in her lap creaking as she fidgeted with it. He was surprised when she lifted her headphones, clearly intent on putting them on. His heart sank as he realized she was still miffed, despite having made a show of accepting his apology.

He turned to go, but Audrey called him back.

“Dan…whatever you do, whatever anyone else tells you to do, don’t listen to them. Listen to your heart.”

He turned back, hesitating. He was surprised at her somber mien. He wondered what had been going on in her life that he wasn’t privy to. He stared at her searchingly, wondering if she was having romantic difficulties of her own. He wondered if he’d been neglecting her, mistaking her generally upbeat demeanor for something he wanted to see because he found it comforting while missing whatever was going on underneath.

She’s fourteen, he thought. Her life probably feels just as challenging as mine does to me.

He nodded slowly, realizing he had to stop thinking of her as a little kid and start treating her as a peer.

“I’m not sure what my heart is telling me with all the other noise.”

She shook her head, “Your heart, not your head. Your head is going to mess it up.”

“Thanks, Audrey,” he responded sarcastically, though he couldn’t repress the smile he felt tugging at his lips.

She unfolded her legs, then slid off the bed. He was surprised when she hugged him, “I’m still totally mad at you guys…but thanks for telling me what’s going on.”

He felt some of the muscles in his shoulders relax, “Sure thing, Aud. Sure thing.”

And what is my heart saying?, he wondered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Price of Failure

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen: Kashmir

 

DANIEL sat across the street from Harry’s, waiting. Since their encounter three days before, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Nicolette. He vacillated between extremes of anger and eager anticipation, frustration and excitement. He had played through a dozen different conversations over the intervening days, but his confusion made it impossible to find a satisfactory scenario; his recriminations always ended with him taking her in his arms; his all-is-forgiven hugs turned quickly to bitter recriminations. He had considered walking away from her, often with encouragement from his friends and family, but time and again, he found himself replaying that first moment at Harry’s, seeing the familiar stranger standing before him. That initial rush of excitement had never stopped surging through him, despite being briefly submerged by other feelings.

He fought to repress an ear-to-ear grin, knowing it was dangerous to get his hopes up. Their unexpected encounter had stirred up his psyche, evoking joy at seeing her while rekindling anger and betrayal fueled by long years of bitter self-recrimination.

His intellect insisted that keeping his distance would be prudent and to play it cautious, to wait until his feelings settled before seeking her out again. Though he agreed with his intellect that it was more prudent to back off, Daniel nevertheless found himself sitting in his truck at Harry’s, waiting for Nikki to finish her shift; his emotional landscape was too steeply slanted toward her.

Listening to my heart?, he thought with amusement.

Earlier that afternoon he had visited Tommy’s little studio apartment. Tommy lived on the Catholic church’s grounds where he traded work for room and board as a grounds keeper when his night job at the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office didn’t keep him occupied. Daniel wondered how he managed to successfully juggle both jobs and still have the time and energy to offer romantic advice to his friends; Daniel had been having enough trouble keeping down one part time job with his paramedic outfit before Nikki had crashed back into his life!

He tapped his hands on the wheel impatiently as he recalled Tommy’s indifferent shrugs and laconic responses to Daniel’s uncertain questions and giddy conversation. At one point, Tommy had looked up and cut through all of Daniel’s doubts and equivocations regarding Nikki: “Now that you’ve seen her, we both know you’ll never have peace until you hear her voice at least one more time… Probably several more times,” he added glumly, looking back down at the bass guitar perched in his lap.

That was all the encouragement Daniel had needed. He had excused himself shortly after that, hopped into his truck and made the short drive up the coastal freeway to Harry’s. It had taken an enormous exertion of will to wait in his truck rather than head into the restaurant the moment the engine stopped; Nikki wasn’t likely to appreciate a second disturbance while she was working...something Dane said the day before suggested he was persona non grata at Harry’s after his last visit. He checked his watch, marking the time since the last time he’d checked (four minutes, twenty seconds), and counted the number of minutes until 9pm. It was Monday night, after all -- how much longer could Harry’s possibly need a hostess? It’s not like there’d been any new patrons in the last twenty minutes.

C’mon Daniel, he chided himself, this is ridiculous. You’ve waited for hours on watch lying face down in cold mud back when you were with the Army. You should be able to wait -- he checked his watch again -- thirty four minutes. He glanced at the radio in irritation; the dubstep wasn’t doing it…it was time to break out the big guns, the serious waiting music.

He fiddled with his phone until Led Zeppelin poured from the speakers. The opening notes of Kashmir flowed over him as he tilted the seat back, the powerful, contemplative melody lulling him into an introspective mood with its slow, inexorable rhythm. He settled in to wait as the music reverberated through his memories, his mind drifting.

Kashmir was playing

 

on someone’s phone -- must be in one of the picnic areas behind the screen of trees , he thought, the haunting melody drifting faintly through the forest around them, the music only intermittently audible over birdsong and the somnolent whispering of the canopy overhead.

They were sitting side by side on Daniel’s jacket, which was spread out on the grass of the hidden forest clearing they had stumbled upon the year before. The clearing was bordered by a screen of trees and rank undergrowth which sheltered them from the cool afternoon breeze and any casual hikers that might pass by. The little open-air cathedral had become one of their favorite places when they wanted a little privacy.

Daniel tilted his head back against the smooth, sun-warmed bark of a tree. It had been almost two weeks since his father’s burial, but exhaustion still dragged at him, making his mind sluggish and his moods uncertain. Since the funeral, his mother had become withdrawn and quiet, numbly shuffling about the house like a ghost during the rare times she wasn’t in bed. He still kept a lonely vigil over her grief from the top of the stairs, sometimes late into the night; even then his own grief was subdued as other matters demanded his attention. He had moved Audrey upstairs into his own bedroom, giving his mother privacy and his little sister relief. Ramona’s grief frightened them all, but little Audrey was even less equipped for it than her older brothers.

Lulled by the sun’s warmth and Nikki’s presence at his side, he felt himself starting to doze lightly, exhaustion finally gaining the upper hand. She had nestled up against him, her forehead buried against his neck, her breathing deep and even. He fancied he could feel her heart beating through the thin green fabric of her t-shirt. A faint scent of green apples teased his senses as an errant breeze picked up the scent of her hair. He breathed it in, letting it soothe his grief, welcoming the distraction. It was the first time since his father had passed that he’d allowed himself to get away from the family, though the press of his responsibilities made his rest uncertain.

A sudden thought occurred to him, bringing him back to wakefulness.

[_ "Nikki -- the day you got the news, when you came to the house, your nose was bleeding. What happened?" _]

There was a long pause as she sat up, startled at the question, the air feeling chilly after her warmth.

“I was in such a hurry to get to you after Greg’s text…I punched myself in the face trying to get the latch on the side gate open. I get so frustrated with it, sometimes.”

[_ He hesitated, studying her earnest expression, the shade from the tree dappling her features as it swayed gently in the breeze. It was a plausible story -- he knew the gate latch on the side gate often got sticky, exposed as it was to the Half Moon Bay salt air. He also knew the latch was just a little bit below Nikki's eye level, and that her frustration with it mounted very quickly when it stuck. But some intuition from years of acquaintance left him certain she was lying. For one instant, he considered challenging her, begging her to share her secret with him, to let him help her before whatever she was keeping back could-- _]

[_ She abruptly leaned forward and kissed him -- a gentle touch of her lips on the side of his mouth. _]

“Nikki,” he started, dimly aware of the opportunity slipping away. She smiled teasingly, kissing him more aggressively, the smell of her hair clouding his thoughts.

He struggled to recapture his train of thought, to push her back before it was too late, but when she ran her hand up his thigh, the thought fled. He was suddenly angry at Nicolette, his resentment boiling over, other emotions surging through the breach.

He sat back up, kissing her back, his anger and frustration jumbling together with his grief, fueling his need. He sensed her surprise as their kiss quickly jumped past gentle teasing to open mouthed desperation. He ran his hands down her back, wincing at her gasp as her hair briefly caught on his watch. She gasped sharply has he roughly pulled her shirt over her head, tossing it aside.

“Dan,” she protested, but lost the thread when he leaned forward and kissed her nipple, roughly tweaking the other one, making her back arch, her breath coming faster as she was momentarily lost in a surge of sensation and desire.

He leaned into her until she fell back onto her elbows, half on half off his jacket, her hair spreading out over the grass. He rolled on top of her, her knees coming up, pressing into his ribs as she settled back. He kissed her with almost bruising force, their breath combining as she kissed him back, running her hands over his back, through his hair. He wondered if this was it, if this was going to be their first time.

Even in the midst of his excitement, a small part of his mind couldn’t let it go: Why would she lie to me?. The snarl reached his lips as he kissed her again, his teeth catching on her lip; he tasted blood.

He felt her hands slide around his shoulders, coming to rest against his chest, pushing against him. He ignored the pressure, taking hold of her wrists, suddenly wanting to feel her body against his as he leaned forward, kissing her neck, excited by the sound she made in response. Distractedly, he wondered what had happened to his shirt as her chest pressed up against him, her skin feeling hot against his as his weight pinned her to the ground.

“Dan,” she said, the faintest hint of alarm coloring her voice.

He raised his hips, giving himself room to pull her running shorts down, then began fumbling one handed with his own belt.

“Dan!” Her voice was pitched to cut through his frenzy. Still panting with excitement, he looked up, meeting her eyes. He was surprised to find them brimming with unshed tears. He realized he had both of her wrists pinioned in his right hand, nearly his full weight on them.

“Not like this, Dan,” she said, sadness and pity filling her voice, “You’re the only one I want…but not now, not like this.”

Jesus Christ!, he thought in shock, What am I doing?

He rolled off, jerking his hands back as if her skin might burn. He stumbled to his feet, horror and shame flooding through him, expanding until he wanted it to vomit it out. But his grief and anger were still raging unchecked, desperately seeking an outlet. He stood over her, hating himself, hating her, hating—

“Is this how it’s going to be, Nikki? That every time we start to get close, you’re going to withdraw and leave it all on me?”

She frowned, her eyes watering, “What? I don’t—”

He continued raging, not even hearing her, “That when it feels like I need you most, you’re just…gone, leaving behind everything we’ve built, no matter how much we love you and need you?”

He stared down at her, as she sat up, hugging her arms over her chest, her eyes filled with tears as she met his angry, raging gaze.

“I can’t even help you without worrying that it might push you away! If you’re going to leave,” he was practically shouting at her, “then why should I love you at all?”

Confused by the love and pity he saw in her eyes, he turned on his heel and stalked off, not even bothering to pick up his shirt or jacket, unable to meet her sad, hurt eyes, her expression

 

etched into his memory.

“I’m sorry, Nikki,” he murmured as the last notes of Kashmir faded away.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen: Chemistry

 

WHEN Nicolette finally exited Harry’s (almost half an hour later than expected), Daniel almost bounced immediately out of his seat and onto the pavement intending to flag her down; but as his hand closed over the door handle, some voyeuristic impulse made him hesitate. She was wearing the same black sheathe dress, only she’d switched from the low heels she’d been wearing the night before to beat up white sneakers, along with a white long-sleeve knit sweater replacing the sheer black cardigan. He suspected she was carrying the cardigan along with her heels in the colorful cloth bag slung under her left arm. She was carrying a paper bag in her left hand, probably her dinner, taken as a perquisite from the kitchen. A very very dubious perquisite, he thought, imagining the mediocre marinara pasta he’d eaten last time he’d been there. While Harry’s was fine once in a while, the thought of having to eat there one or more times a week…he suppressed an involuntary shudder.

Daniel watched as she left the restaurant, turned left and walked the length of two storefronts toward his truck. She paused to lean into the entryway of a small curio shop that normally did a brisk business during the day. He was fascinated, watching her in an unguarded moment when she wasn’t aware she was being observed; he felt as though he was waiting for some hint, some insight into her character that would help him decide what his next move should be. She rummaged in her bag for a moment, before putting her paper bag on the ground as she pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

When did she take up smoking?, he wondered.

She had been on the track team in high school -- back then, smoking had run counter to her training regimen, which she had followed almost religiously. His momentary chagrin was forgotten as he watched her shake her hair out of her eyes, a gesture that made his throat tighten with its lost familiarity. In the days and weeks after she’d left, it was little things like that which had regularly assailed him in the wee hours of the morning. It was those dark, lonely hours when he’d missed her most acutely: the way she would shake the hair out of eyes; the smell of her conditioner; the furtive way she used to steal food from his plate when she thought he wasn’t looking. He wanted to step out of the truck and fold this familiar stranger into his arms, put all of his existential yearnings to rest...and yet something still held him back.

Nicolette shook out a cigarette, lit it with casual ease that suggested long habit, then breathed out a long plume of smoke to join the hazy, chilly evening. Slowly, she sank against the glass window, leaning her shoulder next to a brightly colored carnival glass lamp on the other side of the storefront glass, then tilted her head until her temple lay against the glass as well. She took another long drag of her cigarette, pausing to swipe her hand over her cheeks at the same moment Daniel realized her eyes were catching too much of the light. She stayed that way for one more drag, then picked up her burdens, intent on continuing her walk.

His stasis broke, her sudden vulnerability giving him the impetus he needed to step out of the car. Not wanting to chase her, he called her name, standing next to his truck while he held the door open. Her reaction surprised him, as her head jerked around, almost causing her to stumble, dropping her lit cigarette to the ground.

She caught her balance, then scanned the street, momentarily unable to place where the call had originated from. Across the street, a man standing next to a big Ford raised his hand. (It can only be Daniel! , her mind supplied reflexively -- the way it had been for every tall, dark haired man seen out of the corner of her eye since Daniel had wandered into Harry’s the night before).

She hesitated, momentarily unsure if she should cross. She could see wariness in the set of his shoulders, his wariness exacerbating hers. She was still unsettled; unsettled from their meeting, and unsettled from that crazy dream she was sure their meeting had subsequently caused. They stared at each other, momentarily frozen into inaction as each waited for the other to give some indication of intent; he waiting to see if she was going to stay or leave, she wondering if he was going to raise his voice at her. In the end, it was the chilly Half Moon Bay weather that broke their momentarily stalemate; a gust of damp ocean air set her to shivering. Daniel smiled tightly, then motioned toward his truck as he called out, “Why don’t I give you a ride? I can get you home a lot more quickly.”

He hesitated before gesturing with his head toward the open door, reluctantly adding, “The heat’s been running,” worried that the admission might suggest he was a stalkery voyeur or something, but hoping the offer of a heated cab would be an added enticement.

Her heart accelerated as she briefly considered his offer; she desperately wanted to study him from a better vantage point, to compare the image she’d memorized from high school with the man standing on the opposite side of the street. She wondered how much he’d changed, and how much of that change had been because she’d run away from home.

She shut the line of thought down, realizing that wallowing in guilt and waxing lachrymose might make things just a little bit awkward. She bit her lip (which brought a more genuine smile to Daniel’s lips), then crossed the street after checking left and right.

He’s taller, she thought, as she compared the man standing in front of her to the image in her memory; and big, she thought, contemplating that he’d added muscle to his torso since she’d left. He’d filled out a little bit, the thought leaving her feeling surprisingly sad and disappointed; he had come more fully into his own while she was gone; she had missed being a part of it.

He noted her sorrow, puzzled by it, then smiled as he walked to the passenger’s side and opened the door for her as he used to back in high school. She chuckled, her sadness momentarily driven back by the familiar gesture as she realized she had unconsciously paused by the door, waiting for him out of dusty, but deeply ingrained habit. She was aware of his careful movements, as if he was afraid any sudden movement would scare her away…and perhaps there was a grain of truth to his perception.

She stepped up into his Ford and settled into the bucket seat, turning to make eye contact with his brown eyes so he’d know it was safe to close the door. She watched as he walked around the front, feeling the little butterflies in her stomach grow to armadillo-sized. It was a wonder she could breathe with them banging around her ribcage. The interior of the truck smelled very faintly of new car smell, Daniel’s aftershave, and underneath it, him. Her heart accelerated further as she felt an ambiguous mixture of uncertainty and a not-unpleasant sense of fear. This was a very different reception than she’d have expected after he’d walked out of Harry’s. She couldn’t help but admire the unconscious play of muscle in his shoulders as he levered himself up into the driver’s seat and prepared to drive.

He fought the urge to turn and stare, still unable to fully believe that Nikki -- his Nikki! -- was here, sitting in the passenger seat of his Ford. He studied her as she watched him settle into the driver’s seat and put his seatbelt on, once again noting the white triangular scar which cut through her left eyebrow. It should have broken the symmetry of her physiognomy, but somehow it emphasized it, highlighting her cheekbones and elfin chin, his eyes drawn downward. He caught her eyes; he had always, even as a child, been fascinated by her dark eyes and the way they contrasted with her blonde hair. He could spend hours looking for the pupils, lost in the inky depths of her irises. Sometimes, on bright days he could find them, when her eyes had the faintest hint of brown; but most of the time -- like now, in the shadowy interior of his truck -- he couldn’t.

Nicolette, feeling the weight of his scrutiny and realizing that he wasn’t finding her wholly contemptible, felt her shyness and giddy anticipation increase. She fought the absurd impulse to duck her head into her bag and hide there until she knew he was looking somewhere else; at the same time, she was excited by his approval.

She jumped as Led Zeppelin filled the cab, her startlement breaking the shivery moment.

Daniel pulled his phone out of the cup holder in the center console and deftly navigated the interface, shutting the music off. In the sudden silence, he asked, “Where you staying?”

Was that the slightest hint of unsteadiness in his voice?

“I’m at the Sand Flea tonight.”

He nodded; technically it was the ‘Gold Coast Motor Inn’, but locals knew it as the ‘Sand Flea’. It was cheap, convenient, and several times in its recent past had lived up (down?) to its nickname. She faced the windshield as he backed out of his space. Half Moon Bay wasn’t a huge community; on a Monday night, its nightlife ended relatively early, leaving Main Street largely deserted. The low lying fog was turning into a light mist, lending the empty streets a hazy, dreamy quality. Nicolette was glad she didn’t have to walk back to her motel room through the damp.

The drive was a relatively short one, but the silence quickly became uncomfortable for Daniel, an unusual reversal for them.

“I wanted to apologize for the other night. I wasn’t expecting to see you there, or…well…” his voice dropped off, leaving the rest of the sentence hanging in the air between them: …ever again.

Nikki studied his profile, memorizing the lines of his face intermittently brought into relief by the street lights as they drove. Her eyes traced the line of his forehead and nose, her gaze hesitating over his lips, before forcing herself to look back toward the road, “It’s okay. I should have, I don’t know…called ahead or sent a letter or something.”

He nodded absently as they reached the intersection across Highway 1, pausing to check north and south before crossing, heading toward the coast, “Maybe. I think it would have been a shock no matter what.”

She nodded, sensing The Question she had been dreading, her body tensing with a sickening inchoate panic. The Question would inevitably lead The Conversation, but thinking about it and about dealing with his possible responses -- especially after his reaction to seeing her unexpectedly at Harry’s -- left her desperate to redirect the conversation.

‘Where have you been for the last seven years?’ would be the start of the The Conversation; she dreaded his response. She didn’t feel ready to try and explain her film career (I can’t even say it plainly in my own mind, she thought bitterly).

Or maybe, ‘Why did you leave?’. That one was almost as bad.

“How long were you waiting?” she asked, landing on the first thing she could think of to distract him, feeling like a coward.

“Not long,” he answered, declining to be specific (and not wanting to admit he had been waiting for nearly an hour, like he was stalking her…especially since that was pretty much what he had been doing).

I should stop stalling, she thought, her stomach clenching with anxiety…but held her silence as he pulled into her motel’s parking lot, nosing his truck into a spot she pointed to.

“I was sorry to hear about your mother passing,” he said, eyes fixed on the dark bushes lining the walkway of the motel.

She glanced at him, surprised he would mention her mother, his words rousing the familiar paired relief and guilt, followed by a stronger surge of guilt at her relief. She struggled to find a meaningful response, trying to navigate the hazardous maze of resentment and pain. As the silence began to stretch, she finally gave up, “Thank you.”

She studied his profile, watching as his eyebrows drew together. He always had been surprisingly adept at reading her feelings; she wondered what he was reading now.

They sat in silence, both of them wanting to continue but momentarily nonplussed as they realized they weren’t sure how to proceed, the years apart and the long silence having robbed them of the ease they had once felt in each other’s company.

“Nikki—“ “Daniel—“

They both stopped, waiting for the other to start.

“You fi—“ “Why don’t—“

They both stopped again, waiting. Daniel mimed zipping his lips shut, then gestured toward Nikki.

She smiled, lightly patting his shoulder, then nodded toward the low building as she asked hesitantly, “Do you…want come in and hang out for a little bit?”

Daniel hesitated, feeling the lingering ghost touch of her hand on his shoulder. He briefly heard Ryan’s words in his mind, cautioning him against expecting too much until he had a better understanding of the situation, “Sure. I might have an early shift tomorrow, though.” He didn’t, but he figured a little cover could go a long way if the conversation went south.

Nicolette nodded, simultaneously nervous and relieved as she gathered her bags and pulled off her seatbelt, suddenly embarrassed how much she’d liked the feel of his shoulder under her hand. She couldn’t help jumping slightly as Daniel opened the door for her, smirking slightly as he offered her a hand down. Nikki shook her head; in the two years that he’d been driving when they were together back in high school, he had rarely failed to beat her to the door if she wasn’t going out of her way to race him. She wondered how he always managed it.

“It’s my super power,” he said with a smirk, correctly reading her amusement, “Wolverine heals, Kitty Pryde has intangibility; I get to the door first.”

Nikki snorted as she stepped into the damp night air, “Wasn’t she the one that nearly killed Logan when she touched him?”

“You’re thinking of Rogue. She was the one that can transfer other mutants’…”

He trailed off as he realized she was smirking back at him teasingly, “Nerd.”

He chuckled as she turned and walked the short distance to her motel room. He was surprised at the intensity of his desire to guide her along the walkway with a hand on her back.

He tucked his hands into his pockets as she approached the door and slid the plastic card she had rummaged out of her bag into the lock. Daniel followed her in, watching as she traversed the modest room, turning on lights as she went. The room smelled of what he thought of as ‘Eau de Generic Motel Room’ -- that combination of industrial cleaning fluid, ubiquitous laundry detergent, and air freshener that permeated every motel room he’d ever visited. He paused in the short entry hallway, taking stock of the room and the layout of the furniture along with entrances and exits. Intellectually, he knew it was safe and didn’t expect an attack of any sort, but the basic survival instinct was so ingrained he couldn’t stop himself. He wasn’t even really sure he wanted to break the habit...though his VA shrink would probably say that was a symptom of his PTSD. Nevertheless, he noted doors and windows and planned in his mind where he would go for cover in case...well...just in case.

He passed the doorway to the bathroom and dressing area on his left, then stepped into the main room with its two double beds, a reclining chair, and vanity. The room was themed in pastel desert hues of gold, grey, and green, with gold embossed wallpaper. Nikki dropped her brown paper bag on the vanity, then smiled as Daniel shifted between the beds so she’d be able to reach the front door; it was instinctive on his part and probably overly sensitive, but he didn’t want her to feel as though he was blocking the exit.

Perhaps intuiting some of his thoughts, she smiled at him as she crossed the room. Without thinking, she lightly patted his chest, silently thanking him for his consideration, though she nearly missed a step as she suddenly wondered if the casual gesture had been inappropriate. She longed to touch him, to reassure herself of his warm solidity -- she still struggled with disbelief that he was really here.

She stopped before the bed closest to the interior wall where a plain, scuffed blue duffle bag had been carelessly dropped on the foot of the bed. As casually as he could, he moved to the sliding glass door on the other side of the room, taking a second to peek around the curtains, curious where the room was situated relative to the rest of the motel. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her lithe form as she bent slightly to rummage in her duffle bag, pulling out a change of clothes. A small smile graced the corner of her mouth, as if she was unconsciously aware of his indirect study. He felt a moment of consternation, then just gave up and turned to watch her, abandoning any attempt at subtlety.

Nikki looked up, clothes in hand, meeting his eyes, “I’m going to take a quick shower -- I’ve been running around all night, and probably smell like garlic and industrial soap.”

“I like garlic.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wanted to face-palm, ‘I like garlic’? Seriously, Daniel?

Her brows dropped as she favored him with a perplexed smile, “Thank you. I’ll be quick. Is that…?”

Daniel gestured encouragingly toward the bathroom, “Go ahead. I’ll still be here.”

They were both aware of the faint acerbic hint his last words carried, causing her to flinch slightly as her amused smile faded. He felt a moment of primal satisfaction, then immediately regretted it, regretted losing the superficial intimacy they had been building. He was still largely at the mercy of his bitterness, despite its momentary dormancy. Nicolette just nodded, inviting him to make himself at home, promising again not to take too long. He listened for the water to start, then wandered about the room, taking stock; it didn’t take long. Aside from motel furniture, there wasn’t much: one duffle; the absurd bag she probably still thought of as her ‘purse’; the bag containing her dinner. He resisted the impulse to look through the drawers in the room, or peer into the contents of her duffle. He was curious, but his sense of propriety would’t allow him to violate her privacy like that.

He sighed as he sat on the reclining chair, suddenly restless and agitated, unable to sit still, but without anything to do. What was he doing here? What was his endgame in all this? Did he even really want this?

He stood and paced the room, finally letting his curiosity have a little bit of free rein as he checked whether either of the sliding dressing room doors had been left open, surprised to find only a yellow two piece bikini along with a pink down jacket in plain view in the right one. She really hadn’t brought much with her, making him wonder if this was just a long visit, or if she really intended to stay.

He was surprised at the sudden knot that formed in his stomach, the question bringing with it a rush of anxiety and resentment. He was annoyed how quickly the thought of Nicolette leaving (again!) left him feeling off balance, as though the slightest move in the wrong direction threatened to snuff the tiny spark of hope he had found. He turned from the closet, no longer interested in its contents. He had spent the last seven years working to get over Nicolette -- he’d joined the Army, for Chrissakes, flew halfway across the world in an effort to put her out of his mind. In a way, shipping out to Afghanistan had been a relief; he couldn’t imagine any place more removed from Half Moon Bay and all the memories they had built over fifteen years of courtship. He had thrown himself into the training, into the job at hand, hating idle moments where he had time to think or reflect on what had been lost. It had earned him accolades and respect as a soldier, but hadn’t been enough to fill the void. Even in the high Afghan mountains -- especially in the long, boring hours of waiting between patrols and meetings with the tribal elders -- he hadn’t been able to get away from his memories.

His jaw clenched as he found his resentment awakening his anger. He had been doing fine, getting along just fine, and now BAM! She comes barreling back into his life, stirring up things that, less than a week ago, had seemed settled. Sure, he was struggling with the job thing, and he still had his rough moments, but they were getting less frequent, the ugly memories of his service gradually losing some of their power. And in less than sixty seconds, it felt as though all that work had been blown apart.

He paced the room by the foot of the bed, finally going to the window and leaning against the wall, peeking behind the curtains, checking for…he wasn’t sure what he was checking for, and that uncertainty fanned the flames of his anger further. A sudden memory of a conversation with his VA therapist came to mind, something about taking the time to catalog his emotions. He shook his head in irritation.

Fucking cognitive behavioralist motherfucker.

He took a deep breath, mentally flipping off the smug bastard’s absurd little goatee.

Anger, obviously. Resentment, duh. Arousal…also duh, I’m male. Excitement…he realized he was eagerly looking forward to seeing her again when she stepped out of the shower, that he wanted to memorize her profile; to see if she still did that hair-flip thing she did when her hair was wet; to reach out and touch her, to reassure himself that she really was there.

Fear…that’s interesting.

Daniel folded his arms across his chest, torn between the urge to see her again, and the more sensible desire to head for the door while he still could. In the end, Audrey’s words tipped the scale in favor of staying.

I’m listening to my heart, sis, he thought ruefully, and so far, it’s proven itself to be one dumb motherfucker.

 

He was still resentfully musing over his sister’s words when Nicolette stepped out of the bathroom wearing tight blue jeans and a long-sleeved forest green plaid flannel shirt, a towel carelessly draped across her shoulders. True to her word, she had taken a little less than twenty minutes.

She had tried to hurry, but her nervousness and excitement -- and her own fear -- had made it difficult to open the door. The thought of being in his presence had left her breathless and giddy, fighting to hold back a goofy excited grin, He was here! Now! She had gotten her foot in the door!

The other things, though, her nervousness and fear...she had been forced to stop in front of the bathroom mirror and give herself a brief pep-talk. He wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t shared some of her feelings -- so the hope that there was some mutual enthusiasm was encouraging.

Her heart sank as she stepped out of the bathroom, hesitating; his mood had shifted, his body language having become closed and defensive. His resentment and frustration were palpable, a marked change from his curiosity and approving scrutiny. Unconsciously, she mimicked his stance, folding her arms and leaning back against the wall, unsure what to say. She was suddenly reluctant to step further into room. She could sense his anger and defensiveness, intuitively understanding that most of it was likely directed at her, though she couldn’t see what she had done that might have stoked his ire. After a moment of silence, he turned to face her, silently studying her as she stood in her defensive pose. Dimly, he wondered what his face must look like to bring her up short like that.

He took a deep breath, forcing down his anger. As he calmed, her skittishness seemed to ease, his efforts evoking a hesitant smile. She scrabbled helplessly to find a subject to fill the silence, hopefully something to give him a little more time to settle, “So…what are you up to, these days?”

She watched lines crease his forehead as he unconsciously picked up on the sudden awkwardness.

“I’ve been working as a paramedic. I just recently passed through all the requirements.”

Nicolette waited for him to continue, but the silence began to stretch. She had hoped he’d offer more, or perhaps ask a question back (which filled her with dread as she realized she’d made a tactical blunder when she realized what the most likely return questions were). But he just studied her, his hostility easing slightly. His scrutiny unexpectedly rekindled her shyness, making her want to hide in the bathroom. She had a sudden memory -- when she’d been, what, five? -- of lifting her skirt to hide her face when she was feeling shy. She watched as a small smile began playing about his lips, making her wonder if he was perusing the same memory.

“A paramedic? What made you choose that? Back in high school…” her voice faltered as she realized she had inadvertently ventured onto dangerous territory.

He smiled, though there was little humor in his voice, “I wanted to make up for some of the things I…” he hesitated, changing what he wanted to say in mid sentence, “…saw in Afghanistan. It was pretty bad over there.”

She stared at him in shock, her mouth threatening to drop open.

“Afghanistan? What were you doing there?”

He shrugged, “Army Ranger. They tend to send us where the fighting is fierce. Mostly propping up the Afghan government by pushing back Taliban; provided security while our people encouraged the locals to build schools and plant crops other than poppies. It was…thankless work.”

Nicolette stared at Daniel, struggling to reconcile that with the deeply compassionate boy she remembered, trying to understand how that boy could have become an elite soldier, killing other men for a living.

Did he do that because of me?, she wondered, seeing something in the defiant tilt of his chin, the thinly veiled sadness she had first seen in him back at Harry’s.

“It was hard finding a place after I got back; Mom thought maybe I should counterbalance…that maybe working as a healer would help settle the accounts.”

He listened to himself, feeling a sense of unreality and surprise, Why am I telling you this? I don’t even willingly talk about this stuff with my VA guy when he has time to see me.

Nicolette nodded, a profound sense of sadness sweeping through her as she realized that he had probably seen things which had changed him -- or left him feeling changed. Things which he wished he could take back or undo...while realizing he never could.

Maybe we’re not so different after all, she thought, maybe we both feel corrupted by our choices.

She found herself blinking rapidly, struggling with sorrow for his loss. She intimately understood that profound sense of defilement when you realize you’ve lost your innocence -- that you weren’t even aware you had something which could be irretrievably lost until it was gone, raped away from you by circumstances. She desperately wanted to cross the room and wrap her arms around him, to offer him...anything to ease his loss.

But if he joined because of me…? Is this my fault? How much of the boy I knew in school is left?

Daniel studied her, watching the emotions play across her face, surprised at her sudden sorrow.

For me?, he wondered, genuinely surprised at the intensity of her reaction, Am I reading her right, or is this just wishful thinking?

“It’s not that big a deal. I did my job, and when my time was done, I quit.”

Nikki nodded, forcing the emotion down, though she knew it would probably haunt her -- wondering if her quitting Half Moon Bay had caused him to enlist, and how much of his subsequent experience she was culpable for. At the time, she had felt boxed in, cornered; escape had seemed like her only means of surviving....but the cost of that desertion seemed to increase every time she started to make peace with it.

I don’t know how, but I’m going to make this right, she thought, breathing deeply to get herself back under control. She met his eyes, forcing a smile.

“It must have felt good to come home,” she commented.

When he didn’t immediately respond, she began casting about for anything she could ask to divert the conversation.

Maybe I should ask My Question, she thought, aware that it had been casting a shadow over her thoughts since she’d started her petition to the parole board for a change of venue months ago. She realized the odds were high that her Question would yield an unsatisfactory answer. At best, it would be tipping her hand and showing her interest; at worst she’d look like a stalker or an opportunist -- flying in out of the blue and very clumsily attempting to play on their mutual history. She resolved to save it for another day, then cringed as she heard herself ask The Question despite her resolve not to.

“Are you…” she hesitated, wanting to sound causal, fighting to suppress a wince as she realized she was falling miserably, “Are you seeing anyone?”

Daniel frowned, aware that his wordless study of Nikki was making her squirm; he felt unremorseful at her discomfiture. She leaned against the wall by the motel room’s entrance hall, the simple patterned wallpaper creating a crown of embossed laurel leaves around her head. Daniel watched as she shifted her weight, bringing her hands behind her back, perhaps unconsciously squaring her shoulders. Her loose-fitting flannel slid to one side, baring her left shoulder as the weight of the damp towel began to slide toward the ground. He admired her lithe figure, absently wondering if she was posing intentionally. It looked too planned to be incidental, but something in her expression spoke of nervousness and uncertainty; it should have ruined the effect, but Daniel found it enhanced her appeal. His throat was suddenly tight with emotion as he realized that wherever she’d been, whatever turns her life had taken, her experiences had added an unexpected depth that he couldn’t remember existing before she left.

“No, not… No. You?”

He fought to repress a smile as he watched some of the tension leave her shoulders, her eyes blinking rapidly as she shook her head. He felt some of his own tension leave, his relief surprising him. He hadn’t realized how much her answer mattered to him.

A contemplative silence settled over them, though it was far from restful. Realizing the likely turn of Daniel’s thoughts, the panic which had been hovering in the wings begin to assert itself more aggressively. Things seemed to be going better than she’d expected, especially after the precedent set by their previous meeting. If he asked what she had been up to, she knew she would have little choice but to tell him about the last seven years; her desperation and fear, the bar, the clubs, her film career, the drugs…Mrs. Hamilton…prison.

She suddenly found it hard to breathe as he inhaled, doubtless to ask The Question that would start The Conversation. If their delicate connection was broken now, she feared it could never be rebuilt. Driven by her desperation to derail his train of thought, she asked, “A paramedic? Paramedics have long hours, don’t they?”

He shrugged, “Sometimes -- though it’s more the graveyard shifts that are rough. I’m pretty new, though, so...” he shrugged again.

Sensing that she had only succeeded in slanting the conversation more steeply toward her history, she blurted the first thing that came to mind, a teasing edge coming into her voice as she unconsciously began a game that they used to play. By the time she realized where the game usually ended it was too late, the rhythm of the game too familiar for either of them to change course.

“It sounds like a lot of hard work.”

His gaze sharpened as a he began to smile, sensing the direction of her thoughts, “It can be.”

Her heart began beating faster, though she adopted an exaggeratedly blasé manner, asking, “Why is it that they make the ‘Messicans do all the hard work?”

“Good question. Are you going to start white-splaining now?”

“Probably. Somewhere there’s a garden missing its gardener.”

“No doubt. Shouldn’t you be clapping on the 1 and the 3?”

“Maybe. Isn’t there a border you should be crossing?”

“Already did. Shouldn’t you be practicing your jumping or something?”

She smiled at him, a challenging twinkle in her eyes, “White men can’t jump, cabrón. I can jump just fine.” She added a self-satisfied grin for emphasis, knowing he would take it as provocation. She experienced a brief moment of doubt about the wisdom of starting the old catechism as Daniel grinned, something in his eyes giving her a fluttery sensation in her chest.

He stood and crossed the room, his heart hammering as a sudden heady surge of desire and familiar excitement swept through him. He stood over her, looking down into her face, her shivery excitement adding to his own.

“You can, can you? Let’s see.”

She shivered involuntarily as he reached up and lightly placed his hands on her shoulders, acutely aware of the warmth and texture of his skin where it met her exposed shoulder. She looked up into his eyes, feeling her breath suddenly coming short as she slid her hands from behind her back, though whether to embrace him or push him away she wasn’t sure.

Nikki gasped as he roughly spun her around, facing the wall, her hands coming up to brace herself as his arms wrapped her midsection from behind leaving her back pressed against his front. She arched her back, pressing her hips against him, the surprised catch in his breath making her smile as he braced against the pressure.

The towel draped across her shoulders slipped to the ground unnoticed.

“Daniel…” she started to protest, but felt his breath against the side of her neck, followed by his lips. She shuddered as she lost the thread of her thought, then sighed as he moved from the side of her neck to the angle of her shoulder, only dimly cognizant of the moisture from her hair as it soaked through her shirt where it was trapped between his chest and her back. A moan was startled out of her when he reached up and roughly, almost painfully tweaked one of her nipples through her shirt, causing her back to arch again. She felt his lips smile against her neck as he leaned into her while she simultaneously backed up against him, acutely aware of his arousal. Her thoughts were lost in a haze of pleasure as she felt his hands smooth her shirt over her abdomen, then slide back up under her shirt, the skin of his hands on her stomach causing an unconscious murmur. She stood, hands pressed against the wall, supporting their weight as his hands rose to cup her breasts, the texture of his skin on hers causing her to shudder. He tweaked her nipples again, more gently this time while he continued kissing the side of her neck.

When his hand dove beneath the waistband of her jeans, she shuddered violently at the contact, feeling her legs and arms suddenly overtaken by warm electric prickles originating from his fingertips on her body.

“Oh my…” then thought was lost with the movement of his hands.

“Are you jumping yet?” he asked teasingly.

She still stood with her palms virtually trapped against the wall supporting them, her back arched into his front as she nodded, “It’s been years…” then froze as she realized what she was saying, where that thought would lead; what was likely to happen if she didn’t bring the situation to a grinding halt. Suddenly she felt trapped and helpless, not wanting to stop but knowing that if it didn’t stop, her actions could be seen as blatantly manipulative, using sex to purposefully cloud his judgement. It was uncomfortably close to the truth…

Once he started asking those questions about her past, if her actions could be interpreted in such a malign way…

She steeled her will, finding a way through the haze of pleasure and excitement as she tried to bring the situation to a stop, “Daniel, wait. Stop.”

It took a second for her words to penetrate through his own haze of arousal and pleasure. When they did, he froze, at first thinking that perhaps there was a problem with something specific he was doing. She stepped forward and twisted away from him, his hands sliding around her waist as she stepped away. The contact broke as he stepped to one side slightly, giving her more room.

She turned, her back to the wall, hands behind her back supporting her. He stared into her eyes, her vision still clearly glazed with arousal and desire, panting with exertion. He realized he was probably returning the same heavy-lidded gaze.

Indignation and disappointment mixed with anger as he asked, “Seriously, Nikki? Again? Are you going to shut me down every time things start to get even a little intense?”

He braced for an angry retort, or chilly silence in response. He was surprised when she just shook her head, her brow furrowing, “I shut you down that first time because you were half out of your mind with grief over your dad. I wanted our first time to be,” she hesitated, searching, “to be worth remembering…not a sympathy rage bang!”

He struggled with his confusion at her response, knowing she was at least partly (probably even mostly) right as a dull sense of shame washed through him.

“And this time?” he asked indignantly.

“This time…” she fell silent, momentarily lost in thought.

He studied her flushed face as she stood, still clearly out of breath while a light sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead. His intuition told him that she was teetering on the edge, that she wanted him at least as badly as he wanted to be with her. If she felt so strongly, then why stop…? If she didn’t want things to get this far, then why tease him? She had clearly started them down this path…hadn’t she? Had he started this, perhaps egged her on?

He realized he wasn’t completely sure what had just happened.

He glared at her, still breathing hard as he drew a shaky hand over his forehead, taking in her contrite, apologetic pose, then surprised them both when he laughed bitterly, “You look like a guilty puppy.”

She visibly relaxed, tension draining out of her, but her answering smile was guarded, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I just…”

“Went on autopilot?”

Nikki hesitated, then nodded, “Yeah. I guess that’s as good a way of phrasing it as any.”

He turned away, still rubbing his forehead, “You and me, both.”

“I’d like to continue our,” a smile played at the corner of her lips as she paused for emphasis, “conversation, but…walking before running? Baby steps?”

He sighed, then nodded, “Fair enough.”

After a sharp internal struggle, he finally added, “I was out of line, earlier. You made the right call, back then. I couldn’t see it at the time, but…”

She nodded, relief painted across her features, “S’okay.”

“I should probably go,” he said, though he hesitated a moment, giving her a chance to argue before finally turning toward the bathroom.

She didn’t want him to go, but maybe it was for the best. Like she’d said -- ‘baby steps’; though she couldn’t keep herself from hoping that he’d contradict her.

She settled slowly on the bed, pressing her palms together between her knees as he walked into the bathroom, his gaze abstracted and unhappy.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen: Cleanse the Evil

 

DANIEL stood over the bathroom sink, struggling with his frustration. He should have seen this coming, anticipated the likely outcome of trying to move things too quickly, but his excitement had gotten the better of him. He scrubbed his hands angrily, frustrated that he couldn’t decide who he was angrier with, himself or Nikki. He wanted to blame her for leading him on -- with no small justification! -- but he was also aware that he hadn’t exactly stopped to listen; he had been so ...caught up... in the moment, that the second he thought he’d seen an invitation he hadn’t hesitated. He’d gone straight across the room and taken her in his arms, pulling her close, liking the way she’d felt. He paused, tightening his hands on the edge of the sink as thoughts of Nikki’s hips pushing back against him threatened to knock him back off the branch.

Down boy, he thought ruefully, that isn’t helping.

He splashed cold water on his face, then stared back at his reflection, watching stray water droplets run down the mirror. He smirked as he reflected that he needed a cold shower, that after two minutes with Nikki, a couple little splashes of cool water weren’t going to do it. He hoped she was as bothered as he was.

It would serve her right, he thought, wondering what she was going to do once he left, then quickly abandoning the line of thought at the titillating mental images that arose.

Grow up, Daniel, he thought, you need to chill out and get a little perspective. This is a minor set back; a delay. It’s too soon to get worked up. And if you don’t get a grip, you’re not going to be able to think straight.

Still, he felt a mixture of jubilation and frustration, jubilation that she clearly still had feelings for him; frustration for obvious reasons. But even his jubilation couldn’t completely put to rest his conversation with Ryan. What did she want? Was it really as simple as her wanting to start over? Too many years of contemplation and bad experiences had taught him that wanting something too badly made self-serving justifications far too easy to accept. Similarly, the more self-serving an explanation was, the harder it was for him to let it go.

He knew that Nikki was still sitting on the bed, doubtless listening to him running the water and muttering encouragement to his reflection. He quickly replayed their brief conversation, their first civil interaction since she’d left. It had been a strange, tense exchange, riddled with inexplicable undercurrents. Daniel suspected he would find some puzzling evasions when he began analyzing the conversation later. The realization left him feeling unsettled and anxious.

He hesitated, feeling some of his immediate frustration drain away. He realized he didn’t actually want to leave -- that he wanted to spend more time with her, if for no other reason that to study her, to see if just being in her presence could still fill him with the same sense of contentment and, well, rightness. She hadn’t kicked him out, after all -- he was the one on the verge of storming out...again. He took a shaky breath, releasing it slowly.

I’ve already left one conversation on an angry note. I shouldn’t do it with this one as well. Maybe we can still hang out a little more this evening, maybe watch a movie or something.

He snorted in disgust.

Netflix and Chill, Daniel…really? That’s going to be your play?

He shook his head as he laughed at himself, brushing a stray droplet off his eyebrow before calling out, “Hey Nikki…I just want to say that I’m sorry. That I…that I understand if you want to take things a little slowly, take stock of things and see where we’re at. I totally get it.”

He hesitated, waiting to see if he was going to get a response before continuing. He felt his heart begin to beat faster as he heard the bed in the other room creak, heard the shuff of her bare feet on the carpet as she walked to the bathroom door. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of something white, a flicker of light gleaming in the dressing area between the bathroom and the entry hallway. Surprised, he turned to face her…

...and came face to face with an impossibility; a mind bending pearlescent ball of light, suspended by lambent, nacreous filaments completely filling the doorway. He grunted in surprise, then stood frozen, eyes wide, trying to trace the filaments as the light pulsated. Its light contained hints of disturbing movement and other shapes. He inhaled sharply, his eyes following the ball as it descended toward the middle of the doorway, held in place by the filaments surrounding it, reminding him of a massive spider, sinking within its web. Its light began to brighten, filling the small bathroom with blinding, pulsating white and silver light; he wanted to back away, close his eyes, crawl away while protecting his head with his arms -- anything to escape. He could barely think, couldn’t move, could only stare in mixed wonder and surprise as the ball of light began straining against its web, pulling toward him.

He tried to blink, the light leaving white and black sparks dancing across his vision. The bright afterimages burned into his eyes were colored light trails, streaks of blue and green and red; he heard a hissing, ringing in his ears, the sound humming in time with the pulsing colors dancing across his vision. Distantly, Daniel was aware that water was still running in the sink, the sounds of running water filling the room, blending with the sounds of the sparks. He watched, eyes wide, paralyzed as a single tendril extended from the web behind the ball, stretching toward his forehead. He desperately wanted to duck away.

He fought unwilling muscles, trying to will himself into motion as the tendril touched him, the contact feeling strangely cool. The light seemed to brighten as a strange electrical current began running through his body, reminding him of the dream. His he felt the tendril begin to twist on his skin. He began to see patterns and shapes in the light, the sounds becoming comprehensible, like a radio finally coming into tune . Involuntarily, his eyes were drawn into the center of the ball of light, seeing colors and shapes that he hadn’t been able to perceive before. He briefly wondered if the light was blinding him, if he was watching his retinas as they shriveled into bits of decaying tissue embedded in the jelly of his eye.

He tried to draw his eyes away, to pull back against the filament touching the sensitive spot on his forehead, but every movement seemed to bring his eyes back to the center of the light, each movement refocusing his eyes more deeply into the center. The bright sparks of color resolved into shapes, the shapes resolving into larger patterns, the sound around him beginning to reverberate in time with the patterns his eyes were seeing. He felt himself being drawn further into the shapes and patterns which filled his vision, his skin vibrating.

He seemed to see a heavy stone door through the shifting blizzard of lights filling his vision, a door in some dark place, marked with a strange triangular sigil drawn in soot. It was fashioned of some dark grey, almost black basaltic stone, dull, black and unforgiving. He knew it was important, feeling a something akin to terror at the prospect of the door opening. The door shuddered, slipping open a crack. He groaned involuntarily in surprise, stepping backward in shock. His foot caught on an irregularity in the floor, causing him to stumble.

His throat feeling raw, Daniel sat up in a field of sere grass. The smell of burning filled his nose, along with a disturbing sweet smell that he identified immediately as death; corpses bloating under the sun, unburied and decomposing. His pulse was already racing, but it accelerated further. The scenery around him blurred, the world seeming to streak by.

He stumbled, turning, wondering where he was. As he completed his circle, his eyes fell on the Ritz, perched in elegant luxury on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. His breath caught when he saw that it had been burned by a terrible conflagration, the roof collapsed into a pile of hollowed out, blackened infrastructure. It reminded Daniel of the remains of a man he’d seen, after he’d burned to death, all bones and charred flesh. He remembered staring at the corpse, trying to identify the man’s organs within the charred ruin of his ribcage. He hesitantly approached the hotel, walking over the brown grass that once covered the gentle hills of a golf course, weeds overtaking the carefully manicured lawn. He stepped onto the cracked stone pathway that led around the seaward side of the hotel, toward the back patio. The smell of burning grew stronger, strong enough to leave an uncomfortable itch in the back of his throat and lungs. As he rounded the back of the hotel, he was drawn to the fire pits in the back courtyard, seeing a faint hint of smoke still rising from them. He remember spending many afternoons with Nikki, evenings when they could sneak away together. He remembered staring into the flames, Nikki leaning against him for warmth, listening to the waves shattering themselves against the rocks. He hesitantly crossed the brickwork, something gleaming in the nearest fire pit. He stood on top toes, peering over the brick edge…then immediately looked away as he saw the rounded top of a crushed skull mixed in with other charred bones, accompanied by dark stains on the brick coping.

Whatever fire had burned the luxury hotel had long since burned itself out, but the smell of burning and death was very strong in the air. He frowned as he saw divots in some of the stonework, divots he immediately recognized: gunfire. He closed his eyes briefly, feeling sorrow and pity well up; he had hoped never to see such evidence of violence again, defiling a place he had once loved. In the distance, he saw a column of oily black smoke rising into the sky; tires most likely -- a fire intended to be smoky to attract attention. As he focused on the column, superimposing its likely origin over his mental map of the area, his senses blurred, a sensation of movement causing him to stumble once more.

He was standing on a deserted stretch of Highway 1, some miles south of the Ritz. The black column of smoke was more distant -- somewhere to the north. He saw of a sign standing in the road, a heavy steel pole driven through the asphalt into the gravel and earth beneath. On either side of the sign, stretching to the edges of the road and beyond, he saw concrete k-rail barriers topped with razor wire. South of the roadblock, ruined, burned out vehicles partially blocked the road, most of them pushed haphazardly to the shoulder.

His stomach clenched as he saw more evidence of rifle fire in the starred, cracked windshields. He looked back at the sign in the road, seeing an improvised steel t-bar; hanging down the center was a black banner which flapped in the charnel house wind, depicting a bone-white spider web bracketed above and below with swords facing in opposite directions. As the banner rippled intermittently in the wind, he realized there was a darker sigil underneath, the black markings somehow darker in relief against the black velvety banner; a black rose. The top of the t-bar was lined with blackened skulls, though some of them were monstrously distorted -- too human to be animal, too grotesque to be human. He shuddered violently, wondering what could have happened here, what he was seeing.

He moved north, passing the Ritz (though he avoided looking at it), moving into the downtown area, to the junction of the 1 and the 92 freeway which headed east over the mountains, joining Half Moon Bay with the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area. All around him, he saw familiar buildings and landmarks, subtly altered by decay and destruction -- most commonly by fire. He saw evidence of fighting everywhere he looked, hints that some terrible battle had raged along these streets. A brief bubble of lucidity surfaced amidst the hallucinatory terrain, as he wondered what had happened here, and whether it had affected the family home. He was filled with worry, dread filling him in the erie silence. He realized he could hear the ocean half a mile away -- not even bird calls broke the unnatural stillness.

He arrived at the intersection near the family home and moved along it, seeing many of the homes lining the street burned, some still smoldering. Those that hadn’t burned had symbols spray painted on the door, bright red X’s with numbers in the arms of the X.

DB indicates bodies, he recalled, frequently seeing that marking the lower quadrant of the X.

82^nd^ Airborne?, he wondered, horror and confusion slowing his feet as he began cataloging the markings he was seeing, Why is the 82^nd^ doing rescue operations in California?

He shook his head, unable to find a working theory that didn’t have catastrophic implications. He was disturbed at the implications of the markings coupled with the silence of the neighborhood, illuminated by wan sunlight offering pale, washed out light with little warmth. It had never been this silent; even when the power failed, it had never been this silent; there had always been an almost instinctively heard under-hum of traffic on the 1, of children playing in the streets, distant jets from the airport on the other side of the mountains. As he walked, there was only silence; the crunch of his footsteps on the pavement, the faint skirling of the wind raising the hairs on the back of his neck…nothing else.

it’s the silence of the grave, he thought, suppressing a shudder at the thought. He wondered how many of the empty, silent houses still contained bodies, decaying just out of sight, perhaps collapsed in corners, empty decaying eye sockets fixed on him as he walked.

He shuddered again, then forced the thought away, forcing himself to focus on the street, checking for ambushes, distracting himself with the minutiae of tactical movement.

He reached the end of the block, finding the family home still standing. His breath became labored when he saw a disturbing pile of char in the middle of the front lawn. The tree that graced the front yard was reduced to a charred skeleton. His panic rose at the jumble of human bones mixed in with the blackened ash, his gorge rising as he noticed the gleaming white amidst the char of the tree. A diminutive figure had been nailed to it, hands above its (her) head, palms facing outward. His eyes fell to the charred corpse’s feet, noting another spike had ben driven through its (her) feet. Scorch marks on the heavy spikes suggested the figure had been fastened to the tree before it had burned. He shook his head in denial, feeling his chest constrict until it seemed impossible that his heart could still find room to beat; around the figure’s neck was a simple steel chain with a gold ring and a small cross. His eyes filled with tears as he recognized the ring -- his father’s wedding ring; Ramona had taken to wearing it on a chain around her neck after Gavin, his father, had died. He stood beneath the remains, refusing to process the implications, even as grief and horror welled up.

How could this have happened?

He had no sense of time, had no idea how long he’d been standing over the ash pit when he was jolted out of his terrible, horrified stupor. He watched as a form unfolded itself from the shadows by the side gate. He took an involuntary step backward, his heart skipping a beat as the shadowy silhouette stepped into the wan sunlight; Audrey. He moved forward, relieved joy filling him as he realized that not all was lost -- that not everything he loved had been destroyed.

“Audrey,” he called, beginning to raise his arms, intending to enfold her into an embrace, but something stopped him, made his breath come up short.

“Audrey…?”

Her eyes had turned from the familiar cinnamon to nearly pure silver, her expression savage and unnatural. He tried to back away, but was rooted to the spot, her black hair whipping around her shoulder in an unfelt breeze. Even her voice sounded…strained…rageful…insane.

“Brother,” she intoned, “the Dark Lady has been looking for us.”

He frowned at the implied capitalization of the name, “The Dark Lady? Aud, what…”

She smiled bitterly at him, increasing his discomfiture as her pretty oval-shaped face twisted with hatred, sneering lines appearing around her mouth. He tried to shrink away as she cupped his face with her hands. Her touch was unnaturally cold, burning his skin, feeling as though an icicle was being driven through his head as an icy current traveled between her hands. She leaned closer, and for one horrified moment, he was convinced that she (her corpse) was going to kiss him. His struggles were futile, the cold traveling between her hands enervating, robbing him of will as she leaned in until her silver eyes almost filled his vision. If he could have found his voice, Daniel would have been screaming in pain and horror.

He saw flecks of light moving in her eyes, the silver pupils throwing back the pale heatless sunlight. His eyes were drawn to a white sparkle deep in her irises, “This is the price of failure,” she hissed, her words somehow encompassing all he’d seen, all that surrounded him in this empty, ruined place. “This is the price of failure,” she repeated, as he realized that the thing he saw in front of him might once have been his sister, but was now little more than a vessel for…something horrible. The pain intensified as the white flecks grew in his vision, throwing radiating sparkles into the rest of her silver iris, a nacreous spiderweb of lines. The white fleck grew until it turned into an orb of blinding white light which filled his vision, colors around him turning white, white and silver.

“Cleanse the evil, brother, or face the price of failure.”

He realized the orb had retreated back into the open doorway of the bathroom, one of the lambent tendrils still spanned the air between his forehead and the glowing white orb. He jerked back, feeling a fibrous pain in his head, as though the tendril had penetrated his skull and was now hooked into his brain. He inhaled to yell in horror as the tendril grew taut, the tearing pain inside his skull intensifying.

He yelled once, his voice full of horror, then lost consciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen: Seek the Truth

 

NICOLETTE sat on the corner of the bed, struggling with her frustration and disappointment. It had started out better than she’d hoped -- in some ways, much better! Hell, she was still pretty ready to go if it came to that; if he were to come back out, she was’t sure she’d have the willpower to refuse a second time. Honestly, after their last parting, she’d thought Daniel would be harboring too much anger for any subsequent conversations to be possible -- she had steeled herself for that.

She listened as he ran water in the sink in the bathroom, her thoughts refusing to settle. She sighed as she realized she didn’t want him to leave -- that less than five minutes out of sight, and she was already lonely for his company, even if he remained tense and angry.

How pathetic is that Nikki?, she thought, annoyed at her sudden neediness.

Her self-recriminations were interrupted when he spoke, his voice raised to be heard over the running water.

“Hey Nikki…I just want to say that I’m sorry. That I…that I understand if you want to take things a little slowly, take stock of things and see where we’re at. I totally get it.”

Not really, she thought ruefully, it’s a little more complicated than you think.

A moment passed as she briefly considered her options, then stood, rounding the corner into the bathroom, intending to lean against the doorjamb and (keep him from escaping) finish the conversation…

...and came face to face with an impossibility. Her eyes widened as she saw the silvery white glowing orb in the middle of the doorway, suspended by myriad silver-white tendrils radiating outward in all directions, reminding her of a lambent spider suspended in the middle of its nacreous web. Her breath caught as it brightened, brightened until its pure white light hurt her eyes, causing her to see bright sparks on the edge of her vision, sparks which left trails of color across her vision. The streaks of color formed patterns, shapes, images -- they filled her vision until all she could see was brightness. She was too stunned and blinded to feel anything other than a desire to run away, to cover her eyes, to dive under her blankets until her rational mind caught up. She desperately blinked her watering eyes at the sparks and the color as they seemed to form an image around her. She could see a heavy stone door in some dark place, marked with a strange triangular sigil drawn in soot. It was fashioned of some dark grey, almost black basaltic stone, giving the impression of venerability and menace. She knew it was important, though she wasn’t sure why she felt so certain. She felt fear and trepidation shorten her breath at the prospect of the door opening while she watched, filling her with a desire to flee by any means available.

Her surroundings blurred around her, brightening.

She found herself standing in a field of sere grass, listening to the wind whispering through the tall stalks. Distantly, she heard the boom of the ocean as it crashed against the rocky shoreline. The field was wild and overgrown as she turned a slow circle, seeing hills on one side of the field, the ocean on the other. The hills looked charred and barren, as though a great fire had swept through the area. She could still smell char in the air, and something else sweet and nauseating that wasn’t readily identifiable to her. She realized she was south of Half Moon Bay, in one of the fields just off the 1 freeway. As she completed her circle, she saw a pillar of oily black smoke in the distance, rising miles into the sky. Apprehension rose as she realized the pillar of smoke originated close to downtown -- the urban center of of the area.

Is Half Moon Bay burning?

She made her way to the freeway, walking over charred ground until she reached the steep embankment claiming to the freeway above. As she walked, she saw signs of fighting and burning, cars lining Highway 1, most of them filled with bullet holes. She stared fixedly down the road ahead of her, forcing herself to ignore the cars strung along the side of the road. She had made the mistake of looking in one car and seeing occupied car seats in the back; at first glance, the car had seemed more bullet hole than car, though she knew that was her imagination paying tricks on her. He conscious mind refused to believe that anyone would shoot at a car with occupied carseats…people just didn’t do that in Half Moon Bay, but it was the buzzing flies and a return of that sweet carrion stench, rich and suffocating that convinced her she wasn’t seeing things.

She paused in front of a barrier blocking the road. A steel t-bar lined with the skulls of people and things had been driven through the asphalt, supporting a black velvety black banner. She puzzled over the sigil -- swords, and spiderweb, underlaid by the blacker-than-black rose. The rose showed in relief when the banner was stirred by the hushed breeze from the ocean, the general silence giving voice to the wind’s skirling mutter as it explored the ruins around her. She turned a slow circle; aside from the banner, nothing moved. She briefly studied the skulls, but their empty socketed gaze made her uncomfortable. She wondered if they were watching her when her back was turned after skirting the barrier in the road. She resisted the temptation to look back over her shoulder, afraid they might have turned to watch her, superstitious dread rising at the mental image. Empty shell casings winked in the weak sunlight as she walked, pinging and rattling as she scattered them. She wasn’t an expert in firearms, but they all looked to be casings for the same type of bullet.

That probably means something, she thought dazedly, struggling to find coherency in her thoughts.

When she arrived downtown, she was appalled by the general destruction, dread rising at the ominous silence. The heatless sunlight bleached the surrounding city of life and color. She crossed the intersection of the 92 and the 1, the only sound the faint creaking of the street signs and traffic lights on their long steel arms, swaying in the wind. Her eyes traced the pillar of smoke north from the intersection, where the 1 passed a gas station on the inland side of the freeway. She paused at the curb, seeing a huge crater which had been blasted into the asphalt, flattening the small repair garage to one side, the ground scorched and cracked around the crater itself. The air was filled with thick oily smoke carrying the sweet stench of burned flesh and the chemical reek of burning gasoline and plastic. She moved to the edge of the crater, looking down at the piled, smoldering wrack. It took a moment before her mind fully registered the jumble of bones and scorched flesh. She saw leaming white bones covered in ash, some looking as though they’d only recently been added to the burning pit, skin burned red and black, splitting to show bleeding, charred flesh beneath. Unbidden, the comparison to a roasted luau pig came to mind, and she quickly turned around, shutting her eyes against the horror in the crater as she felt her gorge rising.

She stood frozen, bathed in the reek of the fire pit behind her, trying to gather her will, when she heard the faint scuff of footsteps behind her. Before she could react, she was roughly seized from behind and forced to the ground, feeling the dirty asphalt against her cheek as a knee was savagely pressed into the back of her neck, pinning her while her arms were pulled behind her, then bound with coarse rope which almost immediately burned her wrists and chafed them to soreness. She growled in her throat as she was roughly pulled to her feet and half walked half dragged through a crowd of people, surrounded by a circle of burning torches. She couldn’t remember when the sun had set.

The crowd drew back as she was dragged, naked, into the circle, her hands feeling numb and painful.

Her stomach sank, fear becoming terror as she realized that the crowd was comprised strictly of men. They stood, silent, following her progress into the center of the circle where there was a sort of raised concrete platform perhaps ten feet wide, ringed with an inner circle of torches, burning in the darkness. Every movement hurt, bruises covering her body; she had a dim recollection that the beating had been severe and merciless. Her left eye was swelling shut. Swallowing hurt, her throat feeling like it was lined with little fishhooks.

For a brief second, her conscious mind reasserted itself and she experienced a brief moment of lucidity. A single thought registered, This has to be a dream! I just need to wake up and….

...and she was dragged onto the concrete platform, past the line of torches. She forced toward a block of dark glimmering stone, the light catching and reflecting oddly muted hues, revealing the stone to be partially translucent. The block was wedge-shaped, with a narrow shelf on the ground at the back. With a chill she understood its purpose as she was roughly pushed down with her knees on the shelf, the top of the wedge almost at the same height as her hips. She brutally aware of her nudity as she was forcibly bent over, her head on the downslope of the wedge, with her hips thrust rudely into the air. A heavy leather band was run over the small of her back, then tightened until she was restrained against the stone, vulnerable and exposed to the crowd surrounding the platform. She turned her gaze onto the crowd, staring at them defiantly, but drew her breath in with shock as she realized that half the men crowding around weren’t human -- were in fact only pretending to be human. Her eyes fell on one that looked as though he had advanced stages of syphilis, weeping open sores and flesh sloughing off amidst discolor and decay. As she ran her gaze over the group, she saw most of the men were something demonic that wore human flesh as a costume. She had no clear idea how she knew, only that she was certain.

Her hands were unlimbered and pulled to her sides, then refastened to the sides of the wedge, pulled so tight, she could barely turn her head. She tried to shout with defiant rage, but realized with a horrible shock that her tongue was missing; only a shrill gabbling noise escaped her lips. The noise increased as she screamed, her horror and terror momentarily robbing her of thought. A man with nails and a hammer came, pausing long enough for her to see him and to intuit his intent. He circled to the other side of the obsidian altar.

She screamed in terror and defiance, determined to register her resistance despite her fear. A figure separated itself from the mass, a woman, someone that Nikki recognized, though she couldn’t exactly place her. The woman’s hair glimmered in the darkness, its black lustrous waves throwing back the torchlight. Her oval face would have been attractive were it not for the mad hatred she turned toward Nikki -- though it was her eyes that caught Nikki’s attention. She felt a prick as a nail touched the back of her hand, her heart hammering in her chest in terrified anticipation of what came next. The woman leaned forward and hissed, “There is no room for your kind in this world, Nicolette. This is the price of failure.”

Nicolette understood the girl (her eyes should be brown, she recalled, though she still couldn’t recall where she’d met her before) was referring to the world around her, the ruins and death, the ruin of everything that had defined her world.

She began crying as she sensed the man with the hammer drawing his arm back. The girl leaned in, catching Nikki’s eyes with her own, the silver irises catching the wavering light of the torches, bringing out white specular highlights, the white sparkle catching Nikki’s attention, seeming to throw back the light as she stared.

The woman hissed, her voice strained with madness as she repeated, “This is the price of failure.”

Nikki understood it to mean her own defilement, her unwilling conversion into service of something…unspeakable.

The white highlight filled her vision, blinding her, the sparkle catching other highlights in the woman’s silver eyes, creating a nacreous web of filaments. Nicolette made another harsh, defiant gabbling noise as she felt a pair of rough male hands on her hips begin brutally pulling her apart. She waited in horrible anticipation for the hammer blow as she heard the girl’s voice, hissing across her senses, “Seek the Truth, Nicolette, or face the price of failure.”

She heard the single, heavy thwack, though she never felt the hammer blow as her senses dropped away, leaving her swaying in the hallway of her hotel, still facing the silver-white orb suspended in the middle of the bathroom doorway by numerous glowing filaments. She pulled back, feeling a dull fibrous pain in her head as a tendril which connected her to the orb pulled taught.

Right where the old man touched me, she thought, mercifully losing consciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interlude

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen: The Knee of the Curve

 

IN the near total darkness of the house, he sat up. If his heart still beat, it would have been racing in his chest. The room was silent; he heard the distant susurration of the ocean through an open window. He waited patiently for sunset; the daylight hours had long since become a trial, a time when all he could do was hunker down and wait or plan. He felt weak and enervated, the sunlight a tangible force pushing him toward the earth. When he was still young and his heart still beat -- many, many years ago -- he dimly remembered traveling to the Subcontinent; though his memories of the trip had grown hazy, he still clearly recalled how the heat and humidity had utterly shocked him. He recalled heat prostration and the feeling of dizziness and weakness it brought along with the overwhelming need to find somewhere shady and cool to lie down. He was reminded of that feeling whenever the sun was out, blasting away at the roof of the house he waited in.

In six hours it would be dark enough that he could emerge into the open air and resume his work. He had long ago stopped railing against the sun and his resentment at being a prince during the night time, but little better than an elderly human during the day. He used the time to rest and plan.

And heal.

His meeting with the Advocate had been a close thing; even old and infirm, the Advocate had almost been too much for him. In the end, after nearly losing his head, he had run the old man through. He rarely gave much thought to those that tried stand between him and his dreams of empire; one didn’t think about cockroaches or vermin after one disposed of them. But this Advocate -- the Butcher of the West they had taken to calling him -- had been skilled and had put up a spirited resistance.

But he was gone now, his body likely never to be found. As far as anyone would ever know, the Advocate had quietly packed up and left.

He was healing; he had hoped to feed tonight, to augment the healing process.

But something had changed. He felt it. Some fundamental force had shifted, realigning itself into a new shape. He had always possessed a talent for anticipating danger or changes which might impact his plans. That talent had saved him more than once, allowing him change his plans or retreat before he came under threat. He knew the change was something significant. Something dangerous. Normally, a shift like this would put him on the defensive, would have him beginning a plan to withdraw and reconsider the threats he was facing. Listening to that instinct had allowed him to last nearly four centuries…when most of his kind were typically culled within half a year.

But this time…this time the rewards were worth the risk. He stared into the darkness, wide eyed, forcing his mind to come more fully to wakefulness despite the soporific pull of the sun. If he left now, there was a good chance some other power would move in and resettle the coast. With the Butcher of the West gone, there was only himself to prevent that. He didn’t much care about the Butcher’s territory; he didn’t much care about the complexities and challenges of defending and managing it.

But the girl…

If he backed off now, he’d lose the girl. With the girl, he would have the leverage to make himself a Power.

Something had changed, and his greed for that potential, his greed for access to that kind of power was too great to pass up. He would have to start maneuvering on an accelerated time table. He would have preferred to study the situation further, to formulate more complete plans, but he had a sudden conviction that he wasn’t going to have the time he might normally enjoy. The window to get control of the girl and break her to his needs was small, and it suddenly felt as though that window was closing.

“Ravel,” he called, sensing his get.

“Yes, father,” Ravel answered, his voice a musical tenor emanating from the darkness. Ravel wasn’t his biological son, but the bond they shared was in many ways similar, in other ways more intimate. They were inescapably bound by blood.

“Is the redcap scum positioned well?”

There was a hesitation, a pause indicative of doubt that annoyed him before Ravel answered, “Yes, father.”

“And Tobias?”

Another hesitation which raised his irritation further. His other children felt his irritation. They shifted uncomfortably, but immediately stilled; none wished to attract his attention when his mood was shifting.

“Tobias is…unstable. I don’t know how long he’s going to remain…viable.”

“Where is he now? I feel he is somewhere close.”

“Oakland, father. Across the water. Perhaps if you feed with him…”

Tobias must be very far gone if Ravel was suggesting blood rituals to sustain him.

“If he’s truly gone rabid, we must be prepared to clean up his mess.”

“Yes, father.”

He mused silently for several minutes. His voice was contemplative when he finally spoke again.

“We’ve run out of time for planning and positioning.”

“So soon?” Ravel’s surprise caused another ripple of unease amongst the others.

Rather than rise up in rage and punish his children for their timidity and lack of obedience, he decided to humor the implied question. It felt good to be doing something during his convalescence.

“Yes. I think The Butcher primed his succession before we began our work here.”

He felt his son’s surprise and dismay.

“But it feels as if there is more than that going on as well. You found the Defiler?”

“I did, father.”

“Very well. Send the scum to bring the girl to us. Let us see if there has been a trap set.”

“Yes, father,” Ravel answered, a touch of excitement entering his voice.

Archangel shook his head, annoyed by his son’s overeagerness.

It sounded as though his elder son, Tobias, had gone rabid; he suspected that Ravel wouldn’t be long for this world either. The timing was…inconvenient.

Still…you worked with the tools you had at your disposal, and Ravel was his favorite for a reason.

It wouldn’t do to sacrifice him prematurely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inchoate Messaging

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty: Premonition

 

DANIEL sat in the driver’s seat of the ambulance he shared with his partner, Krishnan Malhotra. They had just finished a long, mostly uneventful night shift, predominantly filled with visits to retirement homes and non-emergency ‘emergencies’. They had finished their paperwork for the last client visit of the shift and were taking the ambulance back to the motor pool.

Daniel was exhausted; the shift hadn’t been strenuous, but the last couple of nights had been almost sleepless. Since waking up in his apartment the day before last with no idea how’d gotten home, he’d been plagued by disturbing dreams, almost certainly a result of his frightening hallucination at the Sand Flea. His last coherent memory of that evening had been standing over the bathroom sink before turning to speak with Nikki. Then he’d jerked awake in his bed, heart hammering as he gasped for breath. He’d awoken convinced he was still in Afghanistan, panicking when he couldn’t find his rifle. It had taken the better part of a minute before his survival instincts loosened their hold, allowing him to think rationally.

He’d repeatedly replayed his memories of that evening, starting with meeting Nikki outside of Harry’s through to his brief stop in the motel bathroom. He could remember most of what they’d said and done: picking her up; conversing with her; folding her in his arms…that had been a surprise! After that, he remembered heading to the bathroom, needing to cool off.

Then the dream.

He had no recollection of anything between washing his hands and his hallucination of ruined Half Moon Bay. The series of horrific and frightening dream images were indelibly imprinted into his memory. He was deeply disturbed by the apparent discontinuity of the memories. He had resolved to call Nikki and check in with her -- perhaps see if she could perhaps fill in the missing memories. Unfortunately, when he’d called the hotel, he’d been informed that she had checked out without leaving any messages. He had been chagrined when he realized he had no way to contact her.

He wondered if Nicolette had run and whether it had been something he’d said or done that might have driven her away. The first shift after his meeting with Nicolette had been an extremely trying one as he grappled with his partial memories from the night before, but Krishnan had managed to smooth things over with his usual unflappable good cheer.

He hoped was that she’d call him or, in the absolute worst case, that she’d call the Hayes home and get his number from Ramona…though two days later he still hadn’t heard anything.

Jesus, Mom, he thought with consternation, what did you say that spooked her so badly she wouldn’t be willing to call the house? What did I say that would scare her off like that? What could I have said?

Or done, he thought with sinking unease.

He wondered if his blackout was related to his hallucinations. Had Nicolette seen him pass out? Had Nikki gotten him home? She didn’t look a pound over 110 soaking wet…he seriously doubted she’d be able to get his 200 pounds out of the bathroom, much less up a flight of stairs to his apartment. But if she hadn’t, then she had to have called someone for help. Tommy or Dane would have called him by now…though he couldn’t imagine her calling Tommy. Who did that leave?

I must have driven myself home. Good thing I didn’t get pulled over.

As he paused at an annoyingly long red light, he eyed a bit of silvery graffiti drawn along the sidewalk; it resembled some kind of Chinese ideogram. He had seen similar bits of graffiti during his last two shifts, but they seemed most prevalent in Half Moon Bay. Though he was hard-pressed to explain it, the silvery, faintly shimmery paint filled him with a brief rush of apprehension. He wondered at its significance.

Krishnan quietly called, “Clear on the right,” as the light changed.

The silvery graffiti was momentarily forgotten as he pulled cautiously into the intersection. As he drove, his mind returned to his earlier worries about Nicolette and his hallucination. He wondered where she was, his longing to see her and perhaps explain becoming almost physically painful as he dwelled on the problem.

“Hey Krish -- let’s stop for some java on the way back.”

Krishnan paused, studying Daniel thoughtfully, “Right-before-bed coffee, Dan? This’ll be a first.”

Daniel shook his head in irritation, “I know. The craving just…” he shrugged.

A slow smile spread across Krishnan’s features, his teeth very white against his dark skin, “You just realized we’re near Coffee Beach! We can see if Paula’s on the current shift!”

Coffee Beach -- a bikini coffee shop -- was the latest shot across the bow of the good ship Feminism. It had opened some months before, a continuation of a trend that Daniel heard had originated up north, spreading elsewhere when it proved that sex could, in fact, sell coffee.

He shook his head, amused at the idea of a bikini barista; a girl in a bikini or lingerie serving coffee. He found the idea absurd, perhaps even a little repellant, but some days it was all Krishnan could talk about, especially his favorite barista, a spunky little blonde with huge grey eyes and the sexiest smile Krishnan claimed to have ever seen. After weeks of listening to Krishnan’s ruminations concerning Paula, Daniel suspected he would probably recognize the girl if he bumped into her on the street.

Daniel shook his head, feeling some of his worry momentarily pushed aside, “Sure, Krish…though for the record, you’re the one that wants to ogle those poor teenagers.”

His partner turned an amused grin on Daniel, radiating approval of the idea.

Daniel snorted, shaking his head at Krishnan’s irrepressible good cheer and generally unselfconscious pervy-ness.

“Coffee Beach it is...someday you’re going to get arrested if you keep going that way -- don’t look to me to bail your pervy butt out, Krish.”

“Hey, dodging pepper spray makes It more exciting!”

Daniel laughed, shaking his head as he made the left turn toward Coffee Beach, “Someday you’ll have to explain to me how you haven’t been fired yet.”

 

Thursday mornings weren’t Nicolette’s favorite shift. They tended to be bursty; lengthy spans of time spent mostly idle, interspersed with a few moments of frenetic activity. She preferred when it was consistently but not frantically busy; slow days left her too much time to reflect on how silly she felt, standing around, wearing a bikini more appropriate to the set of a Miami crime show than a Half Moon Bay drive-through coffee shack. The chilliness of the early morning -- when the small shack hadn’t warmed up yet -- added to her discomfort when she wasn’t in motion.

She absently blew a little strand of hair off her forehead as she finished working the steam wand for the current customer’s coffee creation, added the necessary finishing touches, then capped the disposable paper cup. She was painfully aware that the middle aged man waiting for his order was shamelessly staring at her behind while she worked. He was one of her ‘regulars’, showing up every day at the same time. Though he hadn’t asked for a selfie with her yet, it was probably only a matter of time. He favored her with a guilty sheepish grin, blushing slightly as his eyes jumped back up to hers when she turned around.

You’d think he would realize that half the surfaces in here are chrome or glass, and I can see him staring at me in the reflection while I work, she thought, both amused and annoyed; and wanting to take a shower, as though his eyes had left a distasteful residue, like a snail sliming everything it touched. She suppressed a shudder, though she didn’t drop her professional smile.

Doing it for the tips, she reminded herself. It’s this or a life of crime…though maybe if I stick to little crimes…

She leaned forward, passing him his half-caff, soy milk cappuccino, extra foam, with a dash of cinnamon. She wondered if his order was needlessly complex, intended to draw out the preparation time to maximize his ogling.

“Enjoy your coffee, Mr. Walters.”

His smile widened as he accepted his coffee, “Thanks, Erica! I’ll see you tomorrow!”

She watched as he drove off, grateful that her coworker had convinced her to use an alias. Thankfully, he wasn’t one of the customers that recognized her from her previous life; those encounters were a special Hell of awkwardness…though the tips were usually exceptional.

She closed the little window, surprised to find no customers waiting.

So. It was going to be one of those shifts; all creepers with long waits in between. Wonderful.

She leaned against the countertop, ruminating on the last couple of days while she absently rubbed her arms for warmth. Ever since she’d awakened in her motel room alone, she’d been wondering what had happened to Daniel. Her memories of the evening were hazy, but she could remember some details pretty clearly...embarrassingly clearly, if she was being honest! -- right up until Daniel had ducked into the bathroom. After that...nothing...nothing until the nightmare. It scared her how vivid the dream images had been -- vivid enough to leave aftershock nightmares on successive nights.

She’d awakened the next morning with a panicked yell at the piercing ring of the motel phone -- the wakeup call she’d scheduled the night before. Once the immediate panic had subsided, she’d turned on every light in the motel room, eventually sitting against the headboard sipping bad motel instant coffee to ensure she didn’t doze off again.

She wondered if Daniel had put her to bed after…whatever had happened. She wanted desperately to call him, to ask him about the night’s events. When she’d finally worked up the nerve and dialed the number she remembered from high school, she’d been shocked to discover it was out of service.

[_ If I had realized things were going to get so strange -- hallucinations, nightmares, blackouts, oh my! -- I would have gotten around to exchanging phone numbers first thing. ] She shook her head ruefully at the missed opportunity. [_Did I just…drop to the floor, twitching and drooling on myself? Speaking in tongues? If that’s what happened, no wonder he ditched!]

She frowned glumly, embarrassed at the mental image of herself flopping onto her back and foaming at the mouth with Daniel pressed against the wall, staring down at her twitching form in horror. She desperately wanted to find out what happened, perhaps offer some kind of explanation.

She snorted in exasperation, What could I possibly say? “I uh…mistook an Alka Selzer for a breath mint…and I’m allergic to Alka Selzers…so, uh, yeah!” Good luck with that, Nikki.

She wanted to gnash her teeth in frustration and worry.

Up until the passing out part, it hadn’t gone that badly…had it? Had it?

She couldn’t help a bitter chuckle as she reflected that prison clearly hadn’t been kind to her dating skills if that was the standard she was measuring her dates by. She stared into the shiny chrome of the espresso machine, smiling at her distorted reflection, chirping, “Up until I had a convulsion and mouth-foamed all over myself, it was GREAT!” She added a high pitched giggle and hair flick for good measure.

She sighed, the moment of levity passing as she replayed what she remembered of their evening. She knew she shouldn’t have gotten playful or allowed things to get physical between them, but it had just happened so quickly. It had been exciting, but her near loss of control frightened her. Back in high school, things with Daniel had been intense, but never that intense!

No need to go over that for the umpteenth time, she thought, shutting down the memory before it could become distracting. [_ Nikki, you still work at Harry’s; you still know where his family lives; we both still know Shelly and Dane -- there are a bunch of different ways we can reconnect and try again. _]

As a distraction, Nicolette busied herself cleaning the coffee shack while reflecting on some of the strangeness in the wake of that scary pair of dreams.

The strangeness had started with the silvery graffiti which seemed to be appearing all over town, graffiti that seemed too lively to her eyes. She’d first seen it on the sidewalk, next to a path leading down into Pilarcitos Creek where it wound its way under Main Street; a path she had never noticed before despite having walked past it twice a day for several weeks. The strangely shimmery writing had drawn her eyes, bringing her to a stop as she came abreast of the narrow dirt track.

The graffiti hadn’t rubbed off the concrete when she’d knelt down and gingerly touched it, or when she’d scrubbed it with her fingertips. It had brightened slightly as her hand approached the ground, feeling warm and imparting a tingly sensation in her fingertips. The strange ideogram had quietly shimmered in the shadows, oblivious to her pounding heart or fearful eyes. She didn’t understand how it could be so…lively. While she examined it, other pedestrians had passed, giving the blonde woman in a black cocktail dress curious stares as she knelt on the sidewalk, seemingly oblivious to the ideogram they were trampling. Unsure what to make of it, she had hurried away, unconsciously resolving to find a different route home so she could put it out of mind.

Or at least, she’d tried to put it out of her mind.

The silvery ideograms had hovered on the edge of her thoughts all morning, imparting a vague anxiety that threatened to blossom into fear when she gave herself time to think. She couldn’t have articulated why it bothered her so much until, completely unbidden, a thought had occurred to her late last night, a thought which had robbed her of sleep. It had periodically resurfaced throughout the morning, leaving her shaky and frightened whenever it wormed its way out of the dark recesses of her subconsciousness: Some types of insanity were hereditary.

She shuddered violently, remembering Mother’s calculating smile…the suddenness and extremity of her mood swings…the cake…the belt…

She forced the thoughts out of mind.

Out of sight, out of mind, right? Right? Out of my mind, more likely.

She shook her head in irritation, trying to ignore the icy shiv of fear worming its way into her heart.

Not helping, Nikki.

Of course, it would have been easier to put the strangeness out of her mind if the dead man driving the Land Rover hadn’t stopped for coffee the previous morning…

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One: (The Dead Man) Mr. Ford

 

NICOLETTE stood at the window, staring longingly out over the lightening parking lot, wishing she was in bed, curled up under her blankets, sleeping peacefully in her new apartment. It was really little more than a single, multi-purpose room with a bathroom attached, though the bathroom was surprisingly sumptuously appointed. She suspected the small building had started life as a pool house before being converted into an in-law cottage. Now it was hers. She still stumbled over the idea, enjoying the feel of it in her mind, amazed at all the implications of privacy, of control over her living space, of freedom. She rearranged her meagre furnishings almost daily, reveling in the freedom to do so. She supposed the novelty would eventually wear off, but for the time being it filled her with an excited glee she couldn’t ever remember experiencing.

[_ Perhaps the closest was when she’d spent her first big modeling payday on a car -- the little black Corvette she had dubbed ‘Blackie’ the moment she’d seen it on the used car lot. It had been her first bit of independence in Los Angeles...in her life, really. _]

Until Stan totaled Blackie half a year later, at any rate. Her throat closed at the memory of seeing Blackie, broken and crushed, bleeding coolant onto the pavement of the tow yard. It still filled her with indignant anger that Blackie would be so broken, half folded around a telephone pole, while Stan had walked away with barely a scratch. He had cried apologetically, wheedled at her until she’d forgiven him, resignedly allowing him to crawl back into their bed.

[_ She shook her head, dispelling the memory, replacing it with thoughts of redecorating her apartment. Her flat -- she’d always wanted to say that...and now she could! Maybe if the weather was decent, she might even take a chance and use the Magnusson’s pool; they had invited her to use it when she first moved in, though she hadn’t nerved herself up to take advantage of the offer, yet. _]

Nicolette shrugged. If the weather was good….

[_ Her reverie was interrupted by the low rumble of an SUV’s engine. She checked the clock, noting that it was probably Mr. Ford coming for his morning mocha. He was one of her regulars, having never missed a day since his first visit shortly after she’d started working in the little shack. She hesitated, reluctant to shrug off her pink puffy jacket. While the pre-dawn coffee shack was still chilly, her hesitation was mostly due to Mr. Ford’s tendency to unabashedly stare at her whenever he visited, something in his expression strongly suggesting he recognized her. She assumed he knew her from her film career -- but something about the intensity of his stares made her uncomfortable. Something in his demeanor always left her with the impression he favored her more...extreme...shoots. He was never overtly rude or inappropriate, and he always tipped well -- but something about him always struck her as a little...off, perhaps even a little frightening. _]

She sighed as she shrugged off the jacket before pulling open the window; half this job was showmanship, after all.

“Hi, Mr. Ford, would you….”

She faltered as the tinted window rolled down. She experienced an inexplicable moment of confusion, seeing double, as if her eyes were trying to focus on two different things simultaneously.

Mr. Ford smiled at her, his slightly protuberant brown eyes unabashedly crawling up and down her body before fixing on her eyes, his small horn-rimmed glasses momentarily catching the light, giving his face a demonic aspect. She was sure she was seeing Mr. Ford with his ruddy skin and receding hairline, his thin lips and perfectly even white teeth, all underlaid with a strong scent of Axe…

…but she was equally sure she was seeing a man with peeling, leprous skin, covered in gangrenous sores weeping pus. The left side of his face was dark and livid, as if blood had pooled under the skin into mottled purple and black patches. A thick, crusty stench rolled over her; rotting meat and moist shit mixing with Axe body spray; her eyes watered as she struggled with sudden nausea. She watched as a bit of skin threatened to slough off his chin when he smiled, dark red flesh underneath, glistening moistly in the early morning light. Her eyes rose to his black and rotted teeth, some of which were missing as he spoke, his swollen and blackening tongue giving his words a strangely slurred quality.

Strangely, she had always assumed it was some kind of Eastern European accent…it had never occurred to her that a swollen, rotting tongue might cause it. She watched in horror as thick mellowly mucus ran from his left nostril, partially following the contour of his mouth until it found cracked flesh in his upper lip, channeled until it dribbled into his mouth. She realized that it…he…it was still speaking to her.

Oh Jesus that’s good makeup, was her first thought, though a small voice in the back of her mind whispered that even the most fastidious makeup artist didn’t include rotten meat in a make up kit. She struggled to get her breathing under control, some odd instinct for self-preservation forcing her to resume her professional demeanor for the benefit of the (monster) customer.

He can’t know!, that instinct was screaming.

She heard her voice shaking as she asked, “I-I’m s-sorry, Mr. Ford. C-could you rep-peat that?”

He stared at her, one eyelid gummed open, the other blinking slowly. She struggled with her nausea as an errant ocean breeze brought another whiff of (decaying flesh) Mr. Ford into the shack.

He hesitantly repeated, “A large Mocha, Erica. A little dash of caramel.”

[_ She nodded, forcing herself into motion -- anything to give her an excuse to the close the window! _]

I’m seeing things, she told herself. The last week has been stressful; whatever caused those first hallucinations is kicking in again. It’s just Mr. Ford, she insisted as she struggled to get her shaking hands under control. Pervy Mr. Ford is only a middle aged accountant or teacher or something! You’re seeing things and there’s no reason to cry!

Some instinct told her he mustn’t know she was seeing (Find the Truth!) hallucinations.

The demon in the dream had said something about the Truth, she thought, a random tempest of memories and thoughts roaring through her mind, her hands shaking so that half the drink she was preparing spilled onto the floor. She checked the chrome surface of the espresso machine: he was staring at her back while she worked. She could barely breathe through the hammering of her heart in her chest. She realized she was going to have to open the window again, hand him his drink…maybe touch his (rotting, stinking, pus-laden) hand.

For one instant, she panicked as she considered locking the window, perhaps calling the police.

She stood, back to the window, watching the reflection of the monster, struggling not to cry.

C’mon, Nikki. You’re seeing things. Get a grip. Give the (monster) man his coffee, and he’ll leave. It’s just make up. It HAS to be!

She took a deep breath, then a second, the shaking in her hands reluctantly easing. She forced a professional smile and turned, bringing the coffee to the little window. For one instant, it was just ruddy-complexioned Mr. Ford with his receding hairline. Then the air around him shimmered, like heat ripples distorting the air around his skin…and she was once again seeing the corruption, the crusty stink seeping through the glass. She took a deep breath, aware that her lips were trembling despite her efforts to put on her best professional smile.

I can fake an orgasm after a ten hour feature shoot…I can smile for thirty more seconds. Get it together.

She forced herself to open the window, forcing her gorge back down as the stench intensified once again. She tried unobtrusively to breathe through her mouth.

“Here you go! Have a nice day, Mr. Ford!”

[_ Something in her demeanor -- the steadiness of her voice, her unwavering eye-contact, something -- seemed to reassure him. He smiled, one of his black, rotting teeth flapping in his upper gums as he spoke. _]

“Thank you, Erica. I will see you tomorrow!”

She shuddered, reluctantly accepting the twenty he offered, trying not to think about what might have soaked into it. She slammed the little window shut, then collapsed onto the ground of the coffee shack. If she hadn’t been so desperate for the job, she’d have quit on the spot.

Ah the joys of being an ex-con, she thought bitterly.

Two hours passed before she could nerve herself to come out of hiding and open the window again. Her hands were raw and aching when she finally finished scrubbing them.

[_ Needless to say, the twenty -- last handled by the rotting monster -- had gone straight into the trash. _]

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two: Déjà vu

 

IT had all been a hallucination, she thought. A hallucination brought on by stress and lack of sleep. Maybe she needed to say something to Garcia about her cracking up, that she needed help…but another part of her was completely convinced that it hadn’t been a hallucination at all. She wasn’t sure which instinct to trust…but she was absolutely terrified at the thought of Mr. Ford returning for another round.

But he hadn’t returned the next morning -- or this morning, for that matter -- breaking a pattern that hadn’t changed since the first time he’d visited shortly after she’d started. She was relieved, but some part of her was worried at the change.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the heavy throb of an engine as a large vehicle pulled up -- a giant Ford pickup, maybe. She signed heavily, squared her shoulders and approached the window, preparing to take her customers’ orders and earn her keep, putting on her best professional smile as she unlocked the window. She put her elbows on the counter and leaned forward, consciously arching her back slightly, “Welcome to Coffee Beach! What can I...”

Her spiel faltered as she found herself face to face with a very astonished Daniel. They experienced another moment of time dilation, the moment stretching, seconds becoming hours. Distantly, she noted how well the uniform suited him, the light blue shirt emphasizing his broad shoulders and muscular upper body, the aviator shades folded into the V of his shirt drawing her eyes. She had a sudden impulse to cover herself with her arms and duck behind the counter, embarrassed he should see her half naked, mugging shamelessly for tips.

Even as they froze, staring at each other through the little window, an absurd thought flitted through her mind: Don’t move! Maybe he hasn’t seen me!

“Daniel,” she breathed, shaking off her momentary paralysis, “we have got to stop meeting like this! What brings you here?”

Daniel smiled uncertainly, torn between checking out Nikki in her tiny yellow bikini and his sense of propriety which suggested he should be staring fixedly at her eyes (so she’ll think I’m a psychotic lunatic instead of a perv, he thought sarcastically). She was still wearing the necklace with the inner loop worn as a choker sporting the circle and triangle pendant, the outer loop supporting St. Jude.

His eyes jerked up to meet hers as he realized that St. Jude -- at the end of his longer loop -- was pointing straight down into her cleavage, his eyes unthinkingly following the chain. For a brief second, he thought she might duck behind the counter and pretend no one was there. The black lace gauntlets covering the backs of her hands and forearms made her bikini seem more like lingerie than swimwear. He was surprised when his face heated at the realization, memories of their previous meeting intruding into his thoughts.

He stared at her, almost as surprised and embarrassed as she was, caught between wanting to stare at her in her state of undress while simultaneously sensing her surprised desire to hide.

From me?, he wondered, she probably stands there all day…but I doubt she’s embarrassed to be seen by other customers.

He realized she was waiting for him, watching him struggling not to stare at her bikini…or at what her bikini barely covered. He hastily replayed the conversation, hesitantly answering, “Coffee?”

She blushed, “Right, of course -- coffee. Because this is Coffee Beach. Which serves coffee. And I work here” please God, shut me up, “…obviously.”

Nicolette was startled when Krishnan leaned forward, smiling. His infectious good cheer bringing an answering smile, “Green tea, small! Two bags!”

Daniel jerked in surprise when Krishnan spoke; he had momentarily forgotten he wasn’t alone. Krishnan, annoyingly observant as ever, chimed in, “Hey! Do you guys know each other?”

Daniel nodded blankly, then responded on autopilot as his brain struggled to catch up, “Yeah -- Krish, Krishnan, this is my friend Nicolette. Nikki, this is Krishnan -- he’s my partner. Professionally speaking. As paramedics. Not...” he let the thought trail away.

Krishnan immediately leaned across Daniel and thrust his hand through the ambulance’s window, forcing Nikki to lean forward to reach him. Daniel's ogling reflex warred with his sense of propriety as she leaned, though clearly Krishnan had no such conflict. They shook briefly as Krishnan grinned at her, his innate boyish charm overcoming what, to Daniel at least, seemed like a blatantly pervy maneuver, “Great to meet you! I wondered why Dan wanted to come to Coffee Beach -- now I know why! Are you guys dating?”

There was an uncomfortable pause as Nicolette and Daniel studiously avoided each other’s gaze, then responded simultaneously.

“No, not really—“ “We used to, but—“

They both stopped, waiting for the other. Krishnan, never one to let awkwardness interfere with his sociability, chuckled and nodded, “Ah, okay. That clarifies things!”

Daniel, suddenly annoyed at having his partner’s ear practically pressed into his chin, surreptitiously jabbed Krishnan in the ribs with his thumb, eliciting an amused grunt as he withdrew.

Nicolette paused for a moment, waiting, then finally interjected, “Is there a size to that coffee?”

Daniel laughed, the cobwebs covering his thoughts finally clearing, “A small decaf.”

She hesitated as she realized she liked the way he was looking at her despite her embarrassment, his approval sending a wave of warmth washing through her.

She looks even better than I remembered, he thought, surprised she could top that black cocktail dress.

He smiled back, then turned to Krishnan, frowning as he realized his partner was unabashedly studying her as she worked. Their eyes briefly met, but Daniel’s glare only increased the wattage of Krishnan’s smile, though he did ease off his unabashed study of Nicolette’s back.

“She’s cute. You said she’s single?”

Daniel growled, but Krishnan raised his hands in mock surrender to forestall Daniel’s sharp riposte, “Just asking.”

Daniel looked away, shaking his head, “It’s complicated.”

Krishnan, still grinning, nodded, “Okay,” though he loaded that one word with cheerful doubt.

Daniel glared at Krishnan, “And for the record, you were the one that suggested we visit Coffee Beach.”

Krishnan grinned like a cat that got the cream but didn’t bother to respond to the accusation. Daniel swore under her breath as he turned back to the coffee shack, taking a moment to appreciate how her bikini flattered her hips.

Jesus, Daniel, he chided himself, you’re almost as bad as Krishnan!

A moment later, Nikki returned with their drinks, handing them through the window one by one. He glanced at his partner, knowing Krishnan was paying rapt attention to their conversation despite his apparent interest in his green tea.

“Nikki…” he hesitated, suddenly unsure what he wanted to ask, “what happened?”

Her smile faded, her countenance becoming serious, “I’m not sure. I remember…” her voice faltered as her eyes flicked to Krishnan then back. Something in her expression suggested that something strange had happened that night. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized she was worried, perhaps even frightened -- but not obviously accusatory or remonstrative.

So I probably didn’t vomit on her shoes and climb out the back window. That’s something, at least.

Daniel nodded, “We should meet up. When’s your shift end?”

She leaned back to check the wall clock, “About half an hour from now. I have short break, for lunch but I’m doing a double today.”

“We need to get ole’ Bessie here back to the motor pool, then take care of some paperwork up at BAMM.”

“Bam?”

“Bay Area Mobile Medical. Why don’t we meet after that?”

Nikki shook her head, “I have to get to Harry’s almost straight from here, but I’ll have a little time before that…”

It was Daniel’s turn to shake his head, “We go back on shift at four. Just enough time to eat, sleep, and return for another shift.”

“We’re really understaffed right now! We’re lucky they let us have a break!” Krishnan added, reminding Daniel that they still had an audience.

“How about tomorrow?”

She shook her head, “Same schedule as today, only I also have an evening shift at Harry’s -- and have other plans after that.”

He was surprised at the sudden stab of jealousy as he wondered who these plans were with.

A thoughtful look crossed her face, “You know...Dane is going to a club up in the city tomorrow night -- I think he wanted to check on the competition or maybe check out a band that they liked -- I’m not sure what. Shelly invited me to go with them, but I can’t imagine they’d object if you joined us. We could talk afterward, if you want.”

“Netflix and chill?”

They both glared at Krishnan, eliciting a laugh along with his mischievous grin.

“Nikki -- give me your number so we can work something out.”

This time it was Nikki’s turn to favor him with a mischievous grin, “It’s already on the cup.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opening Gambit

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three: A Sort-of Date

 

NICOLETTE checked her watch nervously as she sat at Harry’s bar, sipping a coke. Any minute now, she expected Daniel to come striding through the door to pick her up. Giddy excitement and nervous trepidation warred for dominance as she contemplated being alone with him again. Throughout the day, starting with her morning shift at Coffee Beach, Nicolette had been struggling with her giddiness, a fluttery feeling moving through her every time she remembered she would be seeing Daniel that night.

The butterflies in her chest knocked around for a few seconds as she contemplated the prospect of spending time with him. Their previous meeting had been intense…quickly and unexpectedly transitioning from conversation to…other things. She desperately needed to touch base with him about that, and about her blackout afterward. Something in his attitude suggested that he might have been sharing similar experiences or dreams.

Or hallucinations, she thought with a shiver.

If I’m cracking up that’s one thing, but what does it mean if we’re both cracking up?

She shook the thought off; she was just scaring herself. No…If she was going to be nervous about something, she was determined that it was going to be Daniel and their…date? Meet up?

It can’t be a jam session, I don’t play an instrument and I doubt he sings, she thought, a ghost of a smile crossing her lips.

She sighed, contemplating different labels that might apply, throwing herself into the problem, dredging up every obscure vocabulary word she could remember in an effort to calm her butterflies.

If you guys don’t back off, I’m going to throw up. Is that what you want, butterflies?

She frowned as eucalyptus washed over her, momentarily distracting her from her giddy anxiety. She glanced down the bar, nodding to herself as she identified the source: Mr. Mendez. He was a regular, often coming in between the dinner rush and the evening meat market. Most times he settled at the bar, did crosswords over a double bourbon, neat, then left. Perhaps intuitively sensing her scrutiny, he looked up, his pale blue eyes startling in his craggy, bulldoggish face. He smiled as their eyes met, the lines of his face briefly softening as he nodded amiably at her, then returned to his crossword. Despite the fierceness of his resting physiognomy, some intuitive tickle always left her with the impression that he was kind. She briefly wondered what his story was.

As the smell of his aftershave once again teased her senses, she stared down into her watery soda, remembering the scent of

 

eucalyptus as she sat in bewilderment, listening to the fading crash of his footsteps through the undergrowth as he forced his way back to the main trail.

“What…?”

She sat up, the cooling afternoon breeze caressing her bare skin, the sun dappled clearing suddenly feeling cold and lonely. She crossed her arms over her chest, feeling exposed and foolish. She felt a queer breathlessness steal over her as she realized he wasn’t coming back.

“What just happened?” she murmured in bewilderment. She felt hollowed out as though a bomb had gone off in her chest.

She rose to her knees to pull her shorts back on, then searched the clearing, looking for her shirt, her vision blurring with tears.

The light in the clearing faded as a tattered patch of fog drifted past the sun. More would soon follow, gradually creeping in from the ocean until the sky became a dull grey blanket. She paused, struggling to draw breath, feeling as though crushing steel bands were tightening around her lungs. She hugged herself as she knelt, panting; she could still feel her skin tingling where he’d touched her, her wrists throbbing faintly.

Was this my fault?, she wondered, struggling to calm her whirling thoughts, flinching as bits and pieces of their afternoon replayed before her mind’s eye: their desire; her fear as he lost himself in his pain; his expression as he lashed her with his grief.

Her temper began to rise as she thought acidly, He deserves sympathy and understanding, sure -- but does that entitle him to wreck everything else? To hurt me?

She found herself snarling through her tears, her certainty growing that she’d made the the right decision, that whatever had happened, he was in the wrong.

But maybe not wholly in the wrong, a secretive little voice whispered in the back of her mind. She ignored the little voice.

It started when he asked about my nose, she realized. She had been surprised that he’d remember that, what with the news of his father’s passing so fresh. She was usually more careful than that, her caution second nature. But that day…

[_ She froze as a new thought occurred to her -- something so obvious and yet unthinkable. _]

What if I just…told him?, she thought, her eyes widening. The cloud passed as she remained motionless, making the forest around her almost painfully bright. What if I told him about Mother, the belt…the other things. He surely already suspects, she thought, as she remembered his skeptical gaze at her glib lie about the fence.

She stared sightlessly down the sun-dappled forest path, an errant breeze filling the air with the secretive susurration of the forest and the strong herbal scent of eucalyptus. The idea shone darkly in front of her. As she thought about her home life laid bare, having to offer increasingly detailed explanations, the steel bands around her lungs suddenly tightened until she could barely breathe. It was almost unthinkable, even in the best of circumstances…but now…

He deserves to know, she thought, struggling to draw breath, her heart thundering in her chest.

But what if he can’t… What if he breaks up with me?, she thought, despair pushing all the air out of her lungs until her gasping made her fingertips ache. She was angry at him, convinced that he had been in the wrong despite her compassion for his pain, but the thought of losing him hurt until black spots danced in her vision.

She’d be exposed and alone.

He’s already got so much on his plate, she decided, abruptly pushing the thought away.

I’ll tell him another time. Maybe when he’s not so sad, she thought as she sank to her knees, suddenly finding breath.

He’ll understand, she thought, hugging herself tighter. She tried to pretend it was Daniel holding her; it wasn’t the same but for now it would have to do.

When things are more settled, she thought, as another heavier wisp of fog crossed the sun, bringing her more deeply into shadow.

 

She stared into her glass, the emotions still raw and fresh in her memory. Chris, the bartender, smiled at her as he paused in his duties, breaking into her thoughts as he asked, “No sign of your date yet?”

She glared at him, drawing an amused snort as he withdrew. They’d been having this argument in bits and pieces all night as their respective duties at Harry’s forced their paths to cross. Chris had been skeptical that it was just a casual meeting from the get-go, especially when she’d started to debate with herself in mid conversation what the appropriate label ought to be. After that, he’d summarily judged their incipient meeting ‘a date’ and no amount of growling and posturing would dissuade him. She knew better than to try and exchange barbs with Chris -- odds are, she’d be better off trading barbs with a porcupine; at least the porcupine would have the decorum not to smirk at her sputtery wounded pride afterward.

Well, what if it is a date? Does that mean anything?

She sipped her Coke, wishing it was something stronger as her excitement began to overpower her attempts to distract herself.

If it is a date, it means that maybe…

She hesitated as the butterflies jumped a size, feeling more like eagles as a queer breathless feeling stole over her. She felt a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to call Garcia, to let him know that her situation here was showing more promise than she’d hoped. Over the last several weeks, she’d found her parole officer to be surprisingly understanding and willing to listen to her updates. His interest, though professional, had seemed genuine. He’d even had a couple of helpful tips for expanding her job search, encouraging her to keep looking.

She snorted, shaking her head in irritation at Chris’ smirk as he caught her eye from the other end to the bar.

[_ So far you’ve had one disaster conversation with Daniel, one conversation that inadvertently nearly ended in sex -- which did end in hallucinations -- and one awkward conversation trying to act casual while standing naked in front of Daniel and his partner _].

His ambulance partner, she added with a smirk, looking forward to teasing him about that.

Something in Chris’ expression at the other end of the bar momentarily drew her attention. She spun around on the bar stool, following Chris’ gaze to the waiting area of Harry’s where Daniel stood, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Nicolette slid off the bar stool, half turning to make a placating gesture toward Chris. The look he returned communicated his thought with perfect clarity: You’re going on a date with that jerk?

She frowned at his disapproving, skeptical look, then raised her hands palm up with a shrug for added emphasis, It’s complicated…what am I supposed to do?

He gave a half-shrug in response, then turned back to his work, clearly displeased; Harry’s Friday night meat-market was starting to come to life now that the dinner crowd was dispersing.

I’m going to have to give him more of the story, or he’s going to be a jerk about me and Daniel, she thought.

Her gaze followed her thoughts as Chris was promptly forgotten. He was wearing jeans and a black button up shirt under a stylishly beaten up leather jacket. He smiled as their gazes locked, an odd tingle of warmth rushing through her in response. His five o’clock shadow added a rugged masculinity to his features that drew her eyes. Aware that Mr. Solis could put in an appearance at any moment, she forced herself into motion, despite her surprisingly wobbly legs. She surprised him with a hug, the smell of his jacket’s leather mixing pleasantly with his aftershave. She surreptitiously inhaled, filling her senses before pulling reluctantly away.

She hesitated, struggling with a moment of self-doubt as she wondered if she might have erred on the side of sluttiness in her efforts to look good for (him) the club.

“Hey -- let’s get out of here. Where’s your car parked?”

He smiled as he nodded in the direction of the door, “Double parked right out front.” He stepped back and promptly opened the door for her, unabashedly checking her out as she walked past, admiring her flatteringly tight jeans and the white platform stilettos she had chosen, the effect only slightly ruined by her pink puffy jacket.

Five minutes later, they were on the freeway, heading east over the mountains on the 92. Traffic at that hour -- close to 10:30 -- was relatively light, though Nicolette suspected it would get busier as they approached the city. She had texted Dane earlier in the evening; he’d been nonchalant, saying the club likely wouldn’t even awaken until close to 11:00. She was still wearing her puffy pink jacket; she felt naked underneath it in her club top, surprised that she felt so shy in Daniel's presence. Once they’d hit the freeway, he’d been content with their silence, but it was making her antsy and uncomfortable. Her shyness worked against her, making it a struggle to find small talk...not that she’d ever been particularly good at making small talk in the first place

She jumped slightly when he broke the silence, “I’m sorry I left you at the Sandflea. The evening is kind of hazy for me.”

Relief flooded through her as she looked at his profile, catching the flick of his gaze as he briefly studied her before focusing on the road in front of them.

“Really? Me too! After we talked, I remember…” she hesitated, her cheeks heating with embarrassment as memories briefly flashed through her mind. She coughed, then forced herself to continue, making an executive decision to jump over that for the moment, “I remember talking, then you calling out from the bathroom.”

His shoulders relaxed, a minute movement she would have missed if she hadn’t been studying him, “I remember that. I remember hearing you standing up and walking over.”

She nodded thoughtfully, her brows drawing together, “I did. And then…I don’t know what happened. I saw something…I don’t know. Something crazy. I had some kind of crazy dream or hallucination—“

Daniel glanced at her sharply, surprise filling his voice, “That happened to me as well -- I remember drying my hands, and then...seeing...I don’t clearly remember what -- something that was too bright to look at--“

“White and silvery!” she interjected, as relief and excited wonder filled her.

His jerked in surprise as he studied her, “Yeah. That’s close to what I remember, too. After that, I dreamed -- hallucinated, whatever you call that -- that I was in this crazy post-apocalyptic Half Moon Bay--“

“Me too!,” she responded excitedly, sagging against the passenger door as relief filled her; she hadn’t realized how much her anxiety and fear had been driving her thoughts. Her story poured our of her, relief shattering her inhibitions, in turn inciting Daniel to tell his story as well. He nodded in stunned surprise when she got to the part about Highway 1 and the banner in the road, her heart hammering in her chest when he described the banner she had seen to a T. Nikki glossed over the details of the Obsidian Alter, though she suspected some of the horror came through, momentarily silencing him, concern filling his features. Their conversation continued until she mentioned the girl with the silver eyes.

“She was in my dream also,” he interjected, “in my dream it was Audrey.”

Nikki stared back at Daniel in surprise, “I think it was Audrey in my,” she hesitated, deciding to use his nomenclature, “dream, also. I didn’t recognize her, but now you mention it, it seems obvious.”

They sat in contemplative silence for several minutes while Daniel navigated urban traffic.

Nicolette continued, “I had this other dream, the night you first visited Harry’s—“

She frowned as Daniel held his hand up and shook his head, “Stop. This is getting too weird. Too…I don’t know…coincidental. I have an idea.”

“What’s on your mind?” she prompted when he hesitated.

“Well…we should stop talking about it and write out our dreams before we speak about it any more. Then we can compare notes.”

She nodded thoughtfully, “Okay.”

A small smile appeared as he added, “That way we can focus on the club. Enjoy ourselves -- as a distraction from weirdness and drama.”

Drama? Step off, son! You don’t know the half of it, she thought as a memory of the dead man briefly surfaced.

As he pulled off the freeway and started navigating city streets, something occurred to Nicolette, eliciting a snort of surprise, “That was very slick, by the way.”

He glanced at her, innocently questioning.

“You just arranged for another date before we’ve even started this one.”

Shit…did I just call it a date? Did he notice? Is it a date?

His skillfully feigned innocence dissolved into an amused smile, “You liked that?”

An answering smile touched the corner of her mouth as she shook her head, “Yeah. I did.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Club

 

THE evening was chilly underneath a grey, San Francisco sky, the undersides of the clouds lit by an indistinct orange glow from the city beneath. A damp, persistent breeze moved along the streets and between the buildings, sometimes channeling through alleyways, making unpleasant gusts as they walked. Nicolette had left her puffy jacket in the car, reasoning that it would likely be very warm once they were inside the club, probably oppressively so. Daniel had been surprised when she shrugged the jacket off, revealing a silver metallic scaled top that left her back and shoulders bare with only a little string around her neck and back. She had added a pair of white lace gauntlets, similar to the black set he’d seen her wearing at Coffee Beach yesterday morning.

At least her forearms probably aren’t cold, he mused, watching as she hugged herself for warmth. He longed to wrap his arm around her shoulders and pull her close, sharing some his warmth, but an awkwardness had settled over them; he couldn’t decide if the contact would be welcome.

Traffic was sparse as they approached the club a little before 11:30. The club was at the intersection of two busy streets; though it didn’t advertise itself by any obvious marquee or lights, they could hear the muted thump of the bass from the next block. They approached the corner where the entrance was located, a crowd of people milling on the corner, chattering loudly.

Smokers needing a fix, he thought, amused at the haze of cigarette smoke above them, trailing away in the breeze, the sweet smell of cloves and the musky smell of other herbs mixing with the cigarette smoke. He glanced at Nicolette, a small smile playing about her lips as she watched the milling people. On the far side of the chattering crowd, a line of people waited next to a velvet rope to enter through a nondescript steel door. As the chilly breeze momentarily sharpened, Daniel felt sorry for the club-goers, especially the women in their short skirts and barely-there tank tops as they waited in the chilly, breezy San Francisco night for their turn in the club.

They walked directly to the hulking bouncer sitting on a battered wooden barstool at the front of the line and informed him they were on the VIP list. He consulted his tablet then waved them through, earning both Daniel and Nikki curious glances from the waiting club-goers. Daniel unthinkingly placed his hand on her back just above the waistband of her jeans as he guided Nicolette through the line in front of him. He was startled at an almost electric tingle where his hand met her skin, the muscles in her back trembling under his palm and fingertips. She shivered at his touch as she looked over her shoulder, surprise fleetingly visible in her expression. He quickly withdrew his hand, still uncertain if the contact was welcome. The ghost sensation of her skin under his fingertips lingered, along with that little electric vibration.

“That felt nice,” she murmured, as they entered the club proper, passing through a dark hallway. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the darkness inside the club. He felt as though he was passing through the throat of some huge beast, the beat and throb of the music its thunderous heartbeat. They passed the coat-check, then entered a much larger space with a raised stage at the far end where the massive heartbeat was being orchestrated by a DJ, his curly blonde hair bobbing to the beat, a pair of bulky studio headphones riding his temples. Everything became visual as their senses were subsumed by the dark rhythm around them.

She watched Daniel over her shoulder, a hint of a smile playing about her lips as he replaced his hand. He was aware of the smooth, cool texture of her skin, his body responding to the contact. He wondered how on earth he was going to make it though the evening if he was already this turned on -- they had just barely arrived! Since she’d first shrugged out of her jacket, he’d wanted to reach out and touch her exposed back, following the line of her shoulders, down her spine to the little hollow above her hips just above the waistband of her jeans.

He was startled to realize his hand had followed his thoughts, his mind distracted by the synesthesia of thunderous noise and hallucinatory darkness. He felt her flesh goose pebbling under his fingertips in response. From the side, her expression was neutral, but he could see her breathing more quickly as they made their way through the club, surrounded by blacklight induced hallucinations, glowing purple-bright movement seething against the darkness, the dancers moving independently and yet all rhythmically tethered to the music’s deafening throb. He was surprised to see the gloves covering her forearms and the backs of her hands lighting up, throwing back the blacklight with nearly blinding purple lambency.

He left his hand on the small of her back, liking the feel of her muscles working as she walked while they looked for the VIP table where Dane, Shelly, and Tommy waited for them. The music was electronic, something with a heavy, repetitive beat. He felt the dark, seductive rhythm filing his chest as they made their way around the slightly less populated edges of the dance floor, through the moist heat and pounding darkness. They paused at an overcrowded bar, where Daniel muscled his way through the crowd and managed to order a beer for himself and a bottle of water for Nikki. The crowd was mostly in their younger to mid twenties, energetic, almost frantic in their need to surrender themselves to the music and dance. Under different circumstances, he would have been willing to let himself be pulled into the frenetic maelstrom of dance, but tonight he felt claustrophobic, wanting to find Dane, Shelly, and Tommy so he could relax and study the crowd.

She nudged him lightly with her elbow and pointed. His gaze followed her pointing finger through the dance floor and its bobbing sea of dimly perceived bodies, as they bobbed to the same rhythm. They made their way between the two crowds -- the dancing mass of bodies on the floor and the loitering throng by the bar. Along one wall of the club, tucked into an architectural irregularity were a row of tables guarded by velvet ropes, the tables were a step up from the rest of the club’s floor in a series of low-ceilinged nooks framed with elaborately carved woodwork.

A thick-armed, bulky bouncer moved to stop them as Daniel reached for the rope, but Dane caught sight of them as they approached. He quickly stood and spoke to the man, the chords on his neck standing out as he raised his voice to be heard over the music. The bouncer nodded, then expressionlessly unhooked the rope and waited patiently while Dane and Shelly hugged them in welcome, mutely motioning them to the table. Tommy made no move to stand as he smiled at Daniel and Nikki, nodding once when Daniel made eye-contact.

Tommy briefly cut his eyes toward Nikki, raising his eyebrows. They hadn’t spoken since the weekend, but Daniel had very little to report; he smiled, then returned an ambiguous shrug. Tommy smirked in response as he returned his attention to the dance floor.

Half an hour later they were settled comfortably around their table, watching the dancers and listening to the music which rendered conversation largely impossible. Nicolette watched with amusement as Daniel and Dane tried, bellowing back and forth to make themselves heard -- about what, she had no idea. She was genuinely surprised when someone brought their table a very expensive bottle of champagne, but a quick survey of their group showed her that this was apparently part of the fun of going to a club with Dane when he was making a professional visit.

It had been a long time since she’d been to a club. She had always enjoyed the energy that passed between a good DJ and the crowd, the two feeding and consuming energy off of each other until they formed one symbiotic organism, driven by the rhythm. When she had lived in LA, she remembered going to nightclubs and feeling a sense of freedom and release as she allowed herself to be drawn into that organism, her sense of self briefly disappearing. As she sat at the table surrounded by this group of virtual strangers, she tried to recapture that feeling, that loss of identity that brought a sort of freedom, but she was surprised how reluctant she was to disappear into the music. She was nervous and uneasy, surrounded by all the people and movement and noise; prison had acclimated her to an entirely different level of stimulation.

C’mon, Nikki, she thought, the music is good and the company has done everything they can to be welcoming, so relax and have some fun! You’re with Daniel, after all! This is what you wanted!

She had been surreptitiously studying him, having been repeatedly startled by the differences between the boy she remembered from high school, and the man that had picked up her at Harry’s. She found herself looking for hints of the adolescent with only superficial success. As she studied him, she slowly realized what the difference was, what kept tripping her perceptions. He had hardened in the intervening years; he was more guarded and didn’t laugh as easily, but had a an intensity, a focus hat hadn’t been present in high school. She wondered how much of that related to his army experience, wondered how much violence he had seen…how much he’d done. She found his intensity and gravitas strangely appealing.

The violence has made him more cautious and watchful, she thought, sadness washing through her.

Nikki sighed as she absently replayed the feeling of his hand on her back -- the warmth and roughness of his skin contrasting with the gentle firmness of his touch. She could have sworn that his first contact had caused an almost electric vibration in her spine; it had been all she could do not to jump in startlement or yip in surprise...and if she had yipped, hopefully the music had covered it up. She had been studying him ever since, looking for any hint that he’d felt it, too. She watched as he laughed at something Dane was saying as he pointed across the dance floor, making a wide sweeping gesture. Her sadness intensified as she realized she had no idea how they were acquainted, their friendship emblematic of all that she’d missed.

You made your decisions, Nikki, she thought harshly. You did the best you could with what you had; now live with it.

She started to tilt her head back against the padded seat of the booth, mentally picturing herself taking a deep draught from the bitter cup she had drawn for herself, but abruptly froze. Her gaze, having been pulled across the club by Dane’s gesture, had landed on a man…but the light caught his eyes strangely, like a cat’s eyes in the dark, throwing back the blacklight. He looked as though he was wearing some kind of mask, giving his face a dark grey, roughened oak-bark aspect, with slits where the nose should have been, underneath a tangle of black dreadlocks decorated with (bones) beads and shiny stones.

She sat up sharply, not sure what she was seeing, but strangely confident that she wasn’t experiencing a contact high (she had only been drinking water -- Daniel had been surprised when she had refused the expensive champaign on the table). As she sat forward, the...man...shifted, giving Nikki the impression that he was looking directly at her, the iridescence of his eyes briefly becoming more lambent, then fading as he quickly looked away. The lights shifted to another part of the dance floor. She blinked as she lost sight of him in the crowd despite her efforts to keep track of him. She had the uneasy impression he’d been watching her.

Nicolette jumped when Shelly lightly touched her shoulder to get her attention, cocking her head inquisitively to the side when Nikki turned, a look of concern painted across her features. She smiled at Shelly reassuringly, pushing down her sudden fear and unease. She tried to shake the feeling, but couldn’t stop herself from one last scan of the club before turning back to Shelly and leaning toward her to speak directly into her ear to be heard over the music, “Nothing --I just thought I saw something...weird. It was just the lights.”

Shelly frowned, scanning the club, then looked back at Nikki quizzically. Nikki smiled, then mouthed, it’s nothing, before leaning back and recrossing her legs, trying to project calm.

Must have been contacts with eye shine or something, like Vin Diesel in those space movies. Clubbers find some pretty wack stuff for the UV lights, she thought. The explanation seemed logical -- was probably even true -- but a tiny intuitive tickle in the back of her mind wasn’t convinced.

Well, I can stay here, cowering in the booth, hiding behind the boys because I’m afraid of a guy with shiny contacts, or I can be a grownup and go dance!

She nudged Shelly, gesturing with her head toward the bobbing crowd. Shelly briefly considered the crowd then smiled back and shook her head. Nikki was surprised -- perhaps she had misread Shelly, confusing her bubbly, upbeat demeanor with that of a party girl. Nikki wanted to dance, but she didn’t want to leave her friend behind. When Nikki hesitated, feeling guilty for wanting to go without Shelly (and maybe the faintest hint relieved that she wouldn’t have to leave her safe little nook, after all), Shelly threw a theatrically longing glance at Dane, then made a shooing gesture. Nicolette smiled back, then nudged Daniel, nodding toward the dance floor when he turned a quizzical glance upon her. He grinned, drained his glass, then stood, pulling her with him.

Dane toasted them with his half full glass, then slid over to Shelly, wrapping his left arm around her shoulders. Nicolette glanced one last time over her shoulder as they began working their way through the shifting, bobbing throng; Tommy was watching them with a curious stare, following their progress onto the dance floor. She froze, heart hammering in her chest as she did an involuntary double-take, Daniel looking back at her questioningly when her felt her come to a halt. For one brief instant, she could have sworn Tommy’s eyes threw back the light, glimmering with an electrified purple lambency as the club’s lights shifted over the dancers.

But when she looked a second time, the eye shine was gone.

The dance floor was crowded, hemming them in with moving bodies, all suspended within the rhythm, reducing their communication to a language of touches and snapshot views of each other when the shifting lights briefly illuminated them. Daniel was excited by the forced intimacy as he sank into the synesthesia of sound and movement. He studied Nicolette as she danced, familiarizing himself with her style, tempering his movements to complement hers. She moved easily, the black light illuminating her gloves, creating hallucinatory afterimages as she moved, the lights faintly glimmering off the scales of her metallic top in counterpoint. Her movement was coordinated with the beat, her body smoothly moving from one position to another, sometimes pausing an extra beat to register a pose. Her top left her back exposed, inviting his touch, exciting him further. She wasn’t energetic or acrobatic, but her movements were smooth…sensual. He smiled, watching her dance, watching as she fell into herself, caught up in the ecstasy of movement and music, the thundering baseline causing them to fall into a semi-trancelike state.

For one brief instant, his worries dropped away, the smell of Nicolette’s hair and the feel of her skin adding to his euphoria. He watched as Nicolette smoothly turned, her hips brushing against his front, her back moving across his chest, clearly lost in the moment. As she danced, it slowly dawned on him that her coordination spoke of long practice, of time spent in front of a mirror. Aware of the movement of her hips and the practiced ease with which she aroused him, a new idea began to worm its way into his thoughts, an idea which strengthened despite his efforts to lose himself in the ecstasy of their nascent intimacy. When he was still in the military, he’d briefly dated a girl, Leslie; she hadn’t been the brightest girl he’d ever met, but she’d been friendly and honest. She’d always styled herself as a dancer, though the type venue she worked at typically included lap dances.

Watching Nicolette dance brought Leslie to mind.

He lost the rhythm as she dropped in time to a heavy downbeat, the back of her head level with his waist. She arched her back, spreading her knees, then slowly straightened until she was bent at the waist, her hips pressing back into his. His hands fell to her hips as thought momentarily fled, torn between his confusion and his desire. Nicolette straightened until she was standing with her back pressed fully against his front, completely lost in the rhythm as her own eroticism elided with her dance. Smiling, she turned her head, lips parted, fully expecting Daniel to kiss her -- she could feel his excitement as she pressed her hips against his front. She waited, still swaying slightly with the rhythm of the music, unconsciously generating friction.

She felt him withdraw slightly.

She glanced over her shoulder, confused. One of the roving spotlights illuminated his face, his confusion and bewilderment evident as he stared at her. She blinked as she replayed the last few minutes, flinching at the mental image. The music had lulled her into habits that had become ingrained when she’d learned to dance at the Kitty Kat in Los Angeles; at the time the movements had been so alien to her -- so literal and explicit -- that she’d been forced to practice whenever she could, working to overcome her own shyness and hesitancy. She had applied herself with the same single-mindedness that had made her a straight-A student, helped her survive 17 years of Mother -- until her own instincts had been supplanted. It never even occurred to her how that might look to Daniel.

She pulled away from him, intuitively understanding from his expression he was done dancing for the night; she had awakened too many doubts, brought her own personal history too much into the spotlight. She nodded toward the bar, raising her eyebrows questioningly, hoping to salvage some portion of the evening. He hesitated, then nodded, reluctantly taking her hand.

He led her to the bar, pulling her through the crowd, unaware that his grip had become painful.

How could I have let things come to this?, she wondered bitterly, her earlier feelings of warmth and excitement gone. Suddenly, she felt foolish trailing after Daniel in her barely-there club top and tight blue jeans, mincing along in her platform heels.

Could this night get any worse?, she wondered.

They reached the bar, surprised to find it mostly free of other club-goers. By some trick of acoustics, the thunderous music wasn’t as loud where they settled against the dark, polished wood. The bartender looked up, nodding in acknowledgement as he finished pouring something into a row of shot glasses lined up together, his pour precise and measured as he shifted from one glass to the next without stopping. Nicolette glanced at Daniel, trying to get a read on his thoughts. His expression was neutral, but she could see the little lines on his forehead telegraphing his disturbed state of mind. Her heart sank as The Conversation she had sought to delay suddenly loomed large on her horizon.

The bartender walked quickly over to them, turning his ear toward Daniel to take his order, his eyes falling on Nicolette as he listened. Her heart sank further when he hesitated, his eyes locked on hers. She had come to recognize that look, that instant of recognition which widened the eyes, the furtive glance to see if anyone else noticed.

This can’t be happening, she thought, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Daniel leaned forward, yelling to be heard over the music, despite the small oasis of calm surrounding the bar. The bartender reluctantly pulled his eyes away from her as he nodded at Daniel in acknowledgment before raising his eyebrows at her in silent query. She lightly tapped her chin with her index finger, the three middle fingers on her hand making a ‘W’: water, she signed. She was impressed when the bartender nodded in understanding. He smiled warmly as he placed a bottle of water on the bar, then pulled down a dark amber bottle from an upper shelf. She was aware that Daniel was staring back and forth between them, his expression troubled, dashing her hope that he might not have noticed. She wished she was home so she could pull her blankets over her head and disappear.

Daniel frowned deeply when the bartender waved off his money, favoring Nicolette with one last warm, flirty smile before hurrying away to the other end of the bar where a group of girls in halter tops had gathered. She could see the thoughts forming in Daniel’s mind: “Why does that bartender recognize Nikki? Why did he comp me top-shelf whiskey?”

Why is Nikki trying to duck under the bar like a cockroach hiding from the light?, she added, realizing her body language was probably mirroring her feelings.

I just can’t catch a break tonight, can I?, she thought bitterly. She sipped her water, refusing to meet Daniel’s eyes.

The evening had started out so well, she thought, eyes rising to her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She felt foolish, mugging at her reflection in her revealing club top, avoiding Daniel’s gaze because of the questions in his eyes—

She saw a glimmer of eye shine, the iridescent purple flicker coming from a man wearing a grey, bark-like mask standing one layer of bar patrons behind her. Their eyes met in the mirror, his sharklike grin faltering at her widening eyes. Heart pounding in her chest, she spun around, back pressed against the bar as she unconsciously leaned away from him. Her mind caught up a moment later, as she realized she’d seen the light catch on naked steel clenched in his fist.

A moment passed before she registered that the man must have ducked back into the crowd, scared off by her sudden movement. Daniel stared at her quizzically, clearly unaware of the man that had been (stalking her) standing by the bar. She briefly wondered if she was cracking up, her fear refusing to subside. Their eyes briefly locked, his expression hardening as he realized her fear was genuine, his gaze going back out over the crowd, scanning for danger, his survival instincts kicking in.

They shared another instant of perfect telepathy; the night was over -- it was time to go home.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five: Near Miss

 

THEY stood on the curb, waiting for Dane and Shelly amongst a large, chattering group of club goers that had congregated on the corner. They were a noisy crowd, still enthusiastic and energetic despite the lateness of the hour. Most of them were probably at least partially drunk, many of them taking the opportunity to smoke. Nicolette was standing near the curb, having been driven across the sidewalk toward the street as the crowd shifted. She sighed in irritation as the chattering girl behind her nudged her for the umpteenth time, despite Nicolette’s repeated shifts to avoid her. Every time she shifted, the crowd seemed to shift with her, bringing the girl and her razor sharp elbows with her.

She stood next to Daniel, cold and damp from the chilly ocean breeze beneath the low lying foggy San Francisco sky. The somnolent mood of the late night cityscape settled over her like a dull grey cloak of misery. Their evening had started well enough, despite their initial awkward diffidence, but it had gone from bad to worse as the evening progressed. She wanted to be home so she could curl up under her blankets and nurse her self-pity until it was time to get up for work at Coffee Beach. She wasn’t looking forward to the early start, or the long double-shift on such short rest, but Saturday mornings were usually busy and the customers tipped well. She was looking forward to having something to focus on which was unrelated to this evening’s debacle -- the less room for her worries to take root, the better.

She shuffled another step toward the curb as the girl brayed with drunken laughter again, her elbow bumping into Nicolette’s back. The girl didn’t even bother to apologize. Nicolette glanced at Daniel as she surreptitiously rubbed her arms for warmth, missing his hand on her back. She wondered how long they would be waiting for Dane to finish his business. The uncertainty of Daniel’s mood coupled with the wait reminded Nikki of her teenaged years, when she knew she had done something which would make Mother angry. The uncertainty always felt like a grinding weight on the back of her neck as she tried to anticipate what Mother was going to do when she got home.

Back before I’d left, I’d have known what to do, she thought, struggling with a sense of profound loss. I’d have been able to anticipate his thoughts and work to smooth things over, to fix things before they got too spun out. But now…

She glanced at Daniel, feeling his silence, intuitively sensing his seething emotions underneath his disciplined and calm exterior. She had no idea how to reach through his shell -- it was something had he found after she left. Even if she could get him to open up, she wondered what she was going to do, how she was going to set things right.

Everything I do just makes things worse, she thought despairingly. Even if I can fix this, will it be as good as it was back then?

She jumped slightly as Daniel cut into her reverie, “You okay?”

She frowned; the question sounded perfunctory, distracted…polite.

“Not really.”

He nodded, brows drawing together, his demeanor suggesting he’d anticipated her answer. She felt annoyance as she wondered whether any answer she gave could have drawn a different response.

How can he still read me so well, but be almost totally opaque to me?

The answer that rang back was almost as disconcerting as it was painful: Because he’s changed more than I have.

She struggled not to cry as she wondered whether the boy she had fallen in love with -- the boy she had come back to Half Moon Bay to win back, if she was being honest -- might be gone, irrevocably destroyed by time and circumstance, some of which she had inadvertently set into motion.

Why I do keep destroying everything I care about?, she wondered, blinking rapidly.

He stood, hands shoved deep into his pockets as he stared blindly out over the street, mulling several different replies. Taking a deep breath, he rejected most of the things he wanted to say -- things largely driven by his own confusion and disappointment...and anger...the anger was never far from the surface. He struggled to find something reassuring he could say, or failing that, something that was at least neutral that would give them time to find common ground again. Before he could settle on a reply, Nikki half turned, relief washing across her face as she caught sight of Dane and Shelly. Something had happened in the club, something he was struggling to grasp, like some rusty, misshapen truth lying just out of reach. He felt that truth coiling around his heart, his suspicions drawing that twisted wire tighter, his anger and pain adding ripping edges to it. He was being unfair, unfair to both of them; but that knowledge wasn’t enough to loosen the coils of that jagged truth tearing at him.

He tried to shake it off as they said their brief goodbyes, Shelly exchanging hugs with both of them and extracting promises that they’d visit Dane at the ‘Summer Cottage’, the home he’d purchased up in the hills overlooking Half Moon Bay. Nikki had never visited, but if she went strictly by their description, she would have guessed it was only slightly larger than her flat. Of course, knowing Dane was about to drive Shelly home in his Ferrari -- and she had the distinct impression that ‘The T’ wasn’t the only luxury sports car he owned -- she wasn’t sure what to expect. As she hugged Nikki, she whispered, “You have to come over and tell me what happened!” in Nikki’s ear, adding an extra squeeze for emphasis. The simple expression of support came as a surprise to Nikki, leaving her eyes prickling with unshed tears as they parted -- but adding a nodded promise that she would.

Shelly favored Tommy with a solemn nod, consciously caricaturing Tommy and Daniel. Tommy, a hint of a smirk playing about his lips, returned the solemn nod, eliciting an amused giggle from Shelly. Suddenly Nikki was exhausted, wanting this crash and burn disaster of an evening to end. She glanced at Daniel, feeling a sudden upwelling of resentment and frustration at his guardedly neutral expression.

You don’t know as much as you think you do!, she thought, feeling her resentment begin to boil over.

Her thoughts were interrupted when the girl standing behind her fell off her heels, bumping Nicolette roughly on her shoulder. As Nicolette stumbled to catch her balance, she was shoved roughly from behind -- must have tripped, she thought.

She had one brief sinking instant of fear as her foot turned on the edge of the curb, her ankle rolling sharply. She heard the roar of an engine as her arms extended to catch herself. She was falling into traffic, bright headlights catching the corner of her eye. As she started to tumble, her head was violently jerked backward by her hair. She thought her neck was surely going to break. Her hand whipped out in front of her for balance as she was unceremoniously dragged backward. She felt callused fingers curl around the waistband of her jeans. A slashing pain tore through the palm of her right hand (The nail!) but she could only gasp in pained surprise.

Almost immediately her hair was released, leaving her stumbling as a beat-up, gold-painted sedan roared past, inches from rolling through her knee. As she tumbled backward, she had the briefest moment of recognition, catching a hint of eye shine, grey barklike skin, an impossibly toothy grin as the driver ducked his head to make eye contact from the driver’s side of the car. She watched as the antenna whipped back up. The car roared past, little more than a gold blur as the driver gunned it, tires squealing as the car jumped back out of the gutter.

Her heels caught on the pavement as time seemed to resume its normal flow, suddenly coming at her too quickly. Her tailbone hit the pavement. She tried to tuck her chin, to use her arms to catch herself, to resist the fall with her core muscles, but when her head whacked the pavement an instant later, she saw flash of white, smelled blood, then nothing.

 

She was probably only out for a few seconds, but the first thing she saw was a very frightened Shelly leaning over her. Nikki heard Daniel shouting, and was suddenly afraid the driver had circled back. She was filled with certainty that if the (monster) driver circled back, Daniel was in over his head, in dire need of help. The back of her head felt loose, as though her skull was threatening to fall away, sinuously threatening to pull her brains after it. She forced herself to stand, determined not to leave Daniel to face the driver alone.

“Nikki—“

Nicolette shook Shelly’s hands off as she came to her feet. She had a blurry memory of Daniel surging into the street in the wake of the hit and run driver.

Almost hit and run, she corrected mentally, realizing that if she had been hit, she would most likely be crippled, probably dying.

The thought brought her up short; the sedan had almost killed her.

She almost died.

Tommy was standing down the street, his back to her. He stood beside Daniel, who was shouting profanities in the wake of the driver, but she didn’t see the gold sedan anywhere. Nikki blinked rapidly, trying to jump start her thinking machinery. A crowd had gathered, was watching Daniel raging. Nicolette shook her head groggily, trying to get the ringing in her hears to clear. When sense returned to what she was hearing, it was as if muffling cotton had been abruptly pulled from her ear drums.

“…Fucking could have killed her, motherfucker! You think you can come into my home, hurt my people and just fucking drive away, you fucking coward?”

She watched as another car pulled up behind him -- a grey BMW. The irritated driver honked at the pedestrian standing in the middle of the street. Daniel immediately rounded on the car, eyes wide with rage, spittle on his lips as he began advancing on the other driver, teeth bared in rage. Dane was at his side, trying to placate him, but Daniel was a runaway locomotive, tearing his biceps free, his raging shout drowning out whatever Dane was saying. Nikki half turned, seeing the gathering crowd, many of the people with cellphones out.

She felt a chill run from her hairline over her forehead all the way to the backs of her thighs, her face strangely numb as several thoughts ran through her mind:

People are calling the cops!

I’m an ex-con on parole!

If I get caught up in this, I could end up going back!

I’ve got to GO!

For one frozen instant of time, she considered leaving, just heading for the nearest BART subway train and leaving everyone to fend for themselves because THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT PRISON!

Immediately following that impulse, shame and self-loathing tore through her. She felt as though she was being pulled in half, starting with the base of her throat all the way down to her groin as the feelings reverberated through her.

Her train of thought lasted for perhaps 2 seconds, just long enough for the driver of the BMW to reach for the door handle. The streetlights glimmered off of the steel of the steering wheel lock he was dragging with him. She lunged into action, tearing free of Shelly’s grip on her left biceps -- much as Daniel had just done with Dane. She ignored the fibrous pain throughout her head and the sharp surge of pain in her neck. Each step sent a jolt of pain through her head, the back of her skull threatening to peel away as she stepped off the curb. Dane saw her, his eyes widening as he stretched out a hand belatedly in her direction, intending to halt her movement, but an instant too slow. The driver was getting out of his car with a steel anti-theft device clutched in his hand, her naked back turned toward him. She put her faith in her friends to keep him from clobbering her as her sense of urgency impelled her to action.

Daniel saw an armed enemy advancing on his position, his life-or-death survival instincts kicking in. He didn’t see Nikki in his path and clearly wasn’t hearing anything Dane was saying. Seeing his wild-eyed rage, bared teeth, and unvarnished hatred, Nikki realized that whatever he was reacting to, it had become divorced from their current situation. She thought he was going to bowl her over, as if she was little more than foliage to be pushed out of the way; an obstacle between him and his intended objective.

She braced herself as he tried to push her aside, throwing her weight against his chest. For one instant, she was perfectly poised one the edge of being thrown onto her back, his momentum briefly checked. She ignored his shouted obscenities and threats, feeling spittle land on her cheek and forehead as she resisted. Instinctively knowing that she urgently needed to ground him, she reached up, putting her hands on either side of his face, forcibly pulling his face down as she murmured, “Dan. I’m fine. Dan. Look -- I’m not hurt.”

She continued speaking soothingly, refusing to let his anger touch her, only increasing the pressure of her hands on his face. When the end of the storm came, it was sudden -- he blinked and finally saw her, registered the pressure of her hands on his face. Behind her, she heard voices, but didn’t feel as though she could spare the attention.

“That car almost killed you,” he growled, still poised on the edge of raging.

She nodded but continued speaking calmly, fighting to project every bit of calm she could muster into Daniel, “But I’m fine. You saved me.”

He stared down at her, confused, his rage beginning to drain away, “No -- that was Tommy. I didn’t even see the car until it was on top of you. For a second, I thought it had killed you.”

Relief flooded through her as she breathlessly replied, “You weren’t the only one.”

She finally spared a look over her shoulder and was surprised to see the BMW’s driver sitting in the driver’s seat, his feet firmly planted on the pavement. Tommy was leaning over him, one arm casually on top of the car door, the other stretched out over the roof of the car. The driver was leaning away from him; she couldn’t see where the anti-theft device had gone. Dane was standing right next to her, almost stepping on her feet, a tearful Shelly behind him pleading, “M-maybe we should get out of the street.”

Nikki turned back to Daniel, surprised to see a trickle of blood run down his cheek. The stinging pain returned to her hand, along with the memory of the car antenna slashing her palm as it passed; she realized it was her blood. She looked into Daniel’s eyes, reassuring herself that he was back to himself. Seeing the implicit question in her eyes, he reached up and covered her hands with his, drawing out the contact, reassuring her.

He reluctantly broke the contact with a nod, “Shelly’s right -- let’s get out of the street.”

Nikki stepped back to the curb, suddenly feeling all of her injuries; her bruised tailbone, the pounding ache in the back of her head, the stinging pain in her right hand, the sharp jagged pain in her neck, the dull ache in her scalp. As she stepped back up onto the curb, she became aware that her ankle was trying to join the chorus, clearly not pleased with the tumble she’d taken.

Heels and car-dodging do not make a comfortable combination, she reflected ruefully

A moment later, Tommy joined them, looking troubled as the BMW shifted gears and hurriedly pulled away. Nikki was reminded of the crowd surrounding them; she and Daniel were the center of attention. She heard sirens in the distance and felt a resurgence of fear at the thought of fielding questions from the police, especially if they checked her out and saw her criminal record. Maybe they were headed toward the club, maybe they weren’t, but either way she didn’t want to be around when they arrived.

Apologetically, she spoke into the stunned silence, “I need to get out of here.”

Daniel hesitated, then reluctantly nodded, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea for me to stick around, either.”

Shelly, looking troubled, still a little teary, stared at them in surprise, “But…that guy almost killed Nikki! We can’t just let him go! He might hurt someone else!”

Nikki shook her head urgently, “Someone else is going to have step up. I can explain later, but right now I really need to go.”

Dane stepped forward, hugging Nikki briefly, then added simply, “Go -- it’s cool.”

As he stepped back, Shelly -- still clearly unconvinced, stepped forward and hugged Nikki then Daniel, “Call us later!”

Nikki nodded, then crossed the street with Daniel only a step behind…but not before double checking that the street was clear.

As she replayed the encounter over and over, she had the disconcerting certainty that the push sending her into the street hadn’t been an accident -- especially when she thought about the (monster) person driving the gold sedan.

With growing fear, she realized someone had just tried to kill her.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Ride Home

 

THEY walked quickly through the deserted streets, listening to distant sirens as they approached. Nikki started to shiver violently before they’d traveled more than a block as the adrenaline drained from her system, the cold reasserting itself. Her mind felt lethargic, her thoughts wrapped in a thick layer of cotton, making it difficult to sort out coherent thoughts from the general background buzz. She was still trying to process what had happened, but felt as though she was doing it with a tenth of the normal output. A breeze swirled through the narrow side street they turned down, making her want to fold in on herself as her shivering increased. She winced at the pain in her hand, the torn skin stinging unmercifully where the antenna had whipped her palm; her wince brought the pain in her head surging back.

Someone just tried to kill me, she thought, the idea flickering to the surface of her churning thoughts as she struggled to understand what had just happened.

Daniel walked beside her, lost in thought, unaware of her confusion. She wondered if he had forgotten she was there. She struggled with her reluctance to break into his thoughts, feeling unaccountably shy. She walked in silence, fighting to form a coherent thought, to plan some reasonable way to start a conversation.

When Daniel’s truck came into view, Nikki sighed in relief, looking forward to recovering her jacket and curling up in front of the heater. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his head turn sharply in her direction at her sigh -- he really had forgotten her!

“Oh shit -- I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how cold you must be. You’re practically naked -- and probably going a little shocky, unless I miss my guess,” he added, studying her critically.

Nicolette nodded absently, but couldn’t find a meaningful response through all the layers of cotton packing her thinking machinery. She jumped when he draped his jacket around her shoulders, the lingering warmth from his body causing a shudder of pleasure and relief as she pulled the ends together around herself, completely engulfing her with room to spare. She sank into the warmth, the smell of leather and aftershave evoking pleasant associations, momentarily settling her thoughts. Her mind settled into a dull grey nullity for the short remainder of their walk.

 

Ten minutes later, she was sitting in the passenger seat, his jacket around her shoulders, her pink puffy jacket settled over her legs as the air blasting from the vents in the dashboard finally gave a hint of warmth. Daniel watched her concernedly as the sluggishness that had settled over her thoughts finally started to dissipate.

“Better?”

She nodded, “Much. My head’s still hurting, though.”

He mentally reprimanded himself for not seeing to his duties as a medical professional.

“Let me get my kit,” he added as he turned in his seat, reaching into the back seat for the white plastic box he kept there.

“That guy almost killed me -- though Tommy almost broke my neck saving me,” she murmured as a thread of cohesion began tying her thoughts together.

Daniel nodded as he dropped the kit in his lap, pulling out gauze and disinfectant, “He feels bad about hurting you, but it could have been worse. Dame la mano.”

She smiled faintly, pleased that the in-joke between them had survived despite their years apart. It was something his mother used to say, a phrase that both Daniel and his brother had learned to imitate with wicked accuracy.

He gently took her injured hand in his after she timidly snaked it out from underneath his jacket, watching with bright curiosity as rolled her hand palm up and examined the damage. He winced at the long abrasion slashing across the upper part of her hand, following her heart line just below her fingers, the skin torn and bleeding. She hissed in pain as he bathed the wound, garnering an apologetic glance from him before he set about bandaging it. She waived off his concern with an amused smile and a small shake of her head when he started to apologize.

“Tommy feels bad? How can you tell? I’ve never been able to read that guy.”

Daniel shrugged unconcernedly as he quickly and efficiently finished working on her hand and moved to check her head, gently guiding her torso so he could assess the damage, “A little blood, but it doesn’t look too bad. Nauseous? Dizzy?”

She winced again, “No. A little. I don’t know -- it just hurts.”

He nodded, “You’re probably concussed, but it doesn’t look too bad. If anything changes, speak up. You really should go to the hospital, but I know you’re going to ignore the suggestion.”

They sat in silence for a moment, Nikki watching as he packed up his kit with an efficiency borne of long experience.

“How much of this,” she raised her injured hand, “was Army versus paramedic?”

He didn’t answer immediately, turning to put the kit back, then putting the truck into gear. They were almost to the freeway before he answered, “That was mostly paramedic training. For Uncle Sam, I wasn’t a medic; I was infantry.”

She hesitated, then shook her head (and almost immediately regretted it as the throbbing momentarily expanded until her eyes were watering), “I don’t know what that means.”

He shrugged, trying to make the gesture seem nonchalant as he added tightly, “It means I spent more time looking for people to hurt than people to save.”

She waited a moment, waiting for him to continue while the cottony pain began to subside. She realized he wasn’t going to elaborate when the silence began to stretch, then stared out the windshield, momentarily at a loss as she once again grappled with the notion that Daniel might have changed more than she had in the intervening years. She wondered if there would be fewer surprises if she started thinking of him as a stranger, with no expectations to confuse her. The throbbing in her head coupled with the ache in her hand made it hard to focus her thoughts, to find a follow up question. She gently tilted her head back against the headrest, trying to soothe herself with the white-noise vibration of the truck and the airy roar of the vents blasting heat into the cab. She breathed in the lingering smell of disinfectant and gauze bandages that permeated the air, along with the faint touch of his cologne. She recognized the scent from their high school days.

Another thing that hasn’t changed, she thought, a faint smile briefly crossing her lips.

“Where have you been, Nikki? You just…up and disappeared.”

She jerked upright, surprised that the road noise was lulling her to sleep. Vaguely she wondered if her concussed head might be contributing to her sleepiness. His voice was quiet, but she could hear the throb of emotion when he spoke, could clearly see his knuckles turning white on the steering wheel; she suspected if the air hadn’t been at full blast, she would have been able to hear the tendons creaking.

She could sense he wanted to say more, but as the silence began to stretch out, she realized he was waiting for her. She sighed, tilting her head back as she foundered on resignation and despair, feeling her eyes stinging with unshed tears. Faintly, the remembered smell of eucalyptus drifted through her thoughts.

Eff it, she thought, coming to a decision, no more secrets.

“Los Angeles.”

He frowned, feeling his frustration and betrayal begin to ignite his anger as the silence lengthened, “That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say? That’s all I get?”

She shook her head, as she turned to stare through the passenger window at passing traffic, watching the city lights rhythmically flickering past, feeling the futility of trying to steer a ship which was already past the point of righting itself, “I don’t know how to start.”

Once again, that rusty, misshapen truth presented itself to him; he reached for it, even as his conscious mind shied away from it, trying to cling to a false truth. He could feel it tearing and drawing blood as he finally started to take hold of it, to accept the version of truth it presented.

She could hear his anger, but she could also hear the pain underlying it, “I’ve been assuming we could just pick up where we left off. But after tonight... I realized where I’ve seen your necklace before. I’ve been kicking myself for not remembering it sooner. Al-Anon? The three legs of the triangle -- recovery, service...” he faltered, trying to remember what the third side represented.

“Unity.”

He nodded, “Unity, right. A lot of the guys I know find their way to AA once they get back. It can be tough to make the adjustment if you’ve seen a lot of combat.”

“A lot of combat,” she murmured, her brows furrowing as wondered if that applied to Daniel. She felt her heart tearing at the thought.

He hesitated, “Nikki, I’ve been trying to be straight with you where I’ve been, but looking over the last couple of weeks,” he hesitated, “you haven’t really told me anything. That you’ve been in Los Angeles…that’s pretty much all I know. We need to have an honest conversation about that, and about what happens next.”

She sighed, tilting her head until it was pressed against the glass. She liked the cold, smooth sensation against her skin, despite the way the vibrations of the road made the back of her head ache. She closed her eyes, unable to stand the sight of her own reflection, “Okay -- but not tomorrow -- I have to be up early in the morning and I need the rest. Especially after everything that’s happened tonight. Daniel--”

“The longer you put this off—“

“I know, the more difficult it’s going to be.”

“I was going to say ‘The harder it’s going to be to trust you’, but yeah -- what you said is probably also true.”

She shook her head, rolling her forehead back and forth against the chilly window glass, “Saturday, then. I’ll text you the address of my new place.”

“I’m taking you there right now, aren’t I?”

She snorted, “Right. Scrambled brains.”

They sat in silence, Daniel navigating the freeway until he hit the 92W, beginning the short ride westward over the mountains to the coast. She hesitated, briefly afraid he might interpret her fear as a self-serving distraction. She decided keeping it to herself wasn’t the right way to build trust, though she wondered how she was going to explain that she saw men wearing wooden masks with iridescent purple eyeshine in the club…and she had the uncomfortable sensation they weren’t wearing masks…and that Mr. Ford was dead, despite his fondness of mochas at 6am.

Eff it, she thought again, no more secrets.

She braced herself and said, “I think someone tried to kill me, tonight.”

His head turned sharply, his expression concerned despite the hint of skepticism that crept into his voice, “Intentionally tried to kill you?”

“Someone pushed me. I stumbled in front of that car because someone pushed me.”

He frowned, “There were a lot of people on that sidewalk, Nikki…”

“I wasn’t nudged -- I was shoulder-checked. I saw the driver in the club; I think he was watching me.”

“You saw the driver…Nikki, it was dark in the club, there were a ton of people there -- how sure are you?”

“Daniel…he looked…he was pretty distinctive.”

Daniel turned, his brows drawn together as the implications began to register, “Distinctive? What do you mean? Have you seen him somewhere else?”

She shook her head, then hesitantly added, “It was weird…he was distinctive because it looked like he was wearing a mask of some sort, but…”

She trailed off, suddenly reluctant to give voice to something that, even in her own mind, sounded crazy.

Matter of factly, he supplied, “…But you don’t think he was.”

She nodded in mute assent, unwilling to give voice to her suspicions, feeling a small trickle of relief that he had at least spared her that.

He fell silent, lost in thought as he processed the implications of her revelation. He hadn’t seen her drink, she hadn’t been showing signs of other drugs that he could spot. He supposed it was possible that she was more severely concussed than either of them realized...but as he studied her, she didn’t seem disoriented or in any way impaired. It sounded absurd -- masked men following Nicolette into a San Francisco club, then orchestrating a premeditated hit and run -- but some intuitive tickle augmented by the strangeness of the last week gave him pause. He sat back, trying to wrap his head around it, to process all the implications, perhaps find some course of action buried in the data. There was too much information he didn’t have, he decided, and too much weirdness to sort through.

She interrupted his thoughts as she quietly added, “We still need to compare notes on our weird dreams.”

He smiled faintly, the corner of his mouth turning up for the briefest instant as he recalled their earlier conversation, “We do.”

They lapsed into silence, but it wasn’t a restful or comfortable silence. She sensed that he was still grappling with his distrust, just as she was grappling with the disaster she saw rapidly approaching. She struggled with despair, her pain robbing her of words.

As the freeway ended, she directed him to turn left on the Highway 1, heading south. Eventually, he made a right turn, heading toward the ocean, driving down a short dead-end street lined with modest homes. At the end of the block, he saw a white and red striped barrier marked with a yellow warning sign indicating the end of the road. The street ended abruptly, no cul-de-sac, just the barrier and a low sea-grass covered earthen berm. The hill sloping down to the unlighted beach. Faintly, he could see the long line of breakers extending along the rocky coast, the white foam of the breaking waves dimly visible in the surrounding darkness.

Nicolette reluctantly shrugged off his jacket, missing the warmth and the reassuring smell of leather and him. He watched as she pulled on her pink puffy jacket, wincing at the movement. The clock on the dash of his truck suggested that she’d get an hour and a half of sleep, tops.

“How’s your head?”

She was surprised by his question, realizing that the pain had gone down during the latter part of their drive, “It’s better. It still hurts, but it’s already starting to feel better. I guess there’s some advantage to knowing a medical professional.”

His smile was polite, but he sounded sincere as he answered, “That’s good. I’ll check in on you in a couple hours; make sure to text back or I’m going to be knocking on your door and dragging your behind to the ER. And Nikki…”

She waited, a brief moment of hope igniting in her heart.

“…if you see any of those weirdos, the maskers, call me. Don’t let them get you alone. And take a picture if you can.”

She forced a smile, struggling with her disappointment, “Okay. 10-4, or, roger -- whatever it is you guys say.”

He smile became a little more genuine, his eyes crinkling the slightest bit, “Any of those work.”

She hesitated, wanting to hug him, kiss him goodnight, anything to reassure herself that the gulf that had sprung up between them was bridgeable, that even the smallest legitimization of their meeting as a ‘date’ might bolster that hope. But after a long pause, she opened the door and slid out, hating herself for her cowardice. She started to close the door, to slam it really, but caught herself at the last second, pulling it back open. Daniel turned to watch her, surprise evident in his expression, “Dan…”

She hesitated, suddenly unsure what she intended to say, her throat constricting painfully as she tried to explain…she wasn’t sure what. He watched her struggle for a moment. Disappointment washed through him when she deflated, clearly giving up, “Good night.”

He nodded, “Sleep well.”

She closed the door, then turned and headed around the side of the house, going through the fence into the yard where the little in-law cottage stood next to the Magnuson’s pool. He could see a hint of the cottage roof over the fence line. The second the gate closed, he felt a hollow emptiness opening in his chest, acutely aware of the missed opportunity. He was still struggling with the ripping, ragged truth that he had first begun to accept earlier that evening.

He glanced at his reflection in the rear view mirror.

“Asshole,” he muttered at himself.

 

He dropped the keys into their bowl by the door. He slowly settled on his couch, the tired springs creaking. He impulsively pulled out his phone and texted her, “We can work this out” though a small voice in the back of his mind registered doubt.

He was surprised when she texted back almost immediately, “I don’t think you’ll feel that way tomorrow.”

Feeling at a loss, he moved to his bedroom and collapsed onto his bed. It had been a surprisingly trying evening, his emotions scraped raw. He had expected to fall asleep instantly, hoping the next morning would being some clarity to his feelings.

Unfortunately, it was almost dawn by the time he finally slept, though his feelings remained murky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wilderness

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Other Fish

 

DANIEL drove up into the hills east of Half Moon Bay, intending to drop by and visit with Dane and Shelly at the Summer Cottage. Dane was fond of hosting ‘Midnight Margaritas’ and ‘Saturday BBQ’ and a variety of other spontaneous social events. He and Shelly liked guests, even seeming pleased to have visitors drop by unannounced. For Daniel, Saturday afternoons at The Summer Cottage had become a regular thing -- he’d been visiting so consistently over the last year and a half, they’d probably worry if he didn’t drop by.

Besides, he thought, they’re probably expecting me to drop by with an explanation about last night’s craziness.

He figured he owed them that. He felt guilty over the dramatic way the evening had ended, his flip-out having added an especially unpleasant timbre to an already strained and awkward situation.

You guys have no idea just how strange that evening probably was, he thought, remembering Nikki’s startling revelation about the men in ‘masks’ that had been watching her…and maybe even subsequently trying to run her over.

What could that be all about?, he wondered, struggling to make sense of such a bizarre and unpredictable scenario.

Why on earth would someone want to kill her? What isn’t she telling me?

He sighed, putting the thought out of his mind. As his car rose up into the hills, he admired the view, appreciating the sunny summer afternoon.

Secrets, he mused, why do we always feel compelled to keep so many secrets?

He sighed again, his mind drifting back.

The sun was shining

 

[_ outside as he sat in Rose Cooper's kitchen, waiting for Nicolette. He had come over hoping to speak with Nicolette and apologize, to make things right with her after being such an unrestrained jerk the previous weekend. Nearly a week had passed and she was still angry with him -- screening his calls and ignoring his texts. He understood her anger -- but his memories were strangely illogical and disconnected. _]

He had been surprised to find Nicolette wasn’t home, though Rose had invited him in to wait. He tried not to fidget nervously while she puttered about the kitchen. The silence had long since become uncomfortable as he cast about for something to say, but Nicolette’s mother didn’t seem particularly bothered by it.

[_ "What are your college plans, Daniel?" she asked, smiling at him over her shoulder, her carefully sculpted eyebrows rising slightly as he considered his reply. She was an attractive woman -- he could see the lines of Nicolette's face in her mother's, though her mother hair was dark, almost black; they both shared the elfin chin and clearly defined lines, though he felt Rose's bone structure was more severe. _]

“I think we’re going to apply to USC and UCLA, Mrs. Cooper. All the UC’s, at least.”

He watched as Rose’s eyes brows rose in surprise, unease washing through him as she quickly covered it up, “Has she discussed any of the East Coast schools with you?”

Daniel hesitated, puzzled, “No, ma’am, not yet.”

Rose nodded thoughtfully, but didn’t add anything further.

To forestall a return of the awkward silence, he hurriedly asked, “How are things with you, Mrs. Cooper?”

[_ She turned, drying her hands on a dish rag, her Brown University tank top accented by a loosely buttoned flower-print silk shell. She was older than his mother, but her clothes were form fitting enough to show off her figure to good effect. He forced himself to keep eye contact as she answered, "Well, a mother is only as well as her children, Daniel. My eldest are doing well, but Stuart -- he's such a sweetheart -- has gotten involved with a girl. She lives just down the street, but I don't think she's a good match." _]

She sighed, a look of sadness crossing her features as she added, “Some day he’ll realize that there are other fish in the sea and move on.”

She was about to continue, but they heard the front door open, Daniel’s heart racing as he heard Nicolette’s voice from the entryway, mixed with her father’s. A look of irritation briefly crossed Rose’s expression, but it was gone so quickly, he was unsure he’d actually seen it. Nicolette walked into the kitchen then froze when she saw Daniel sitting at the kitchen table. He started to smile at her, but her gaze slid away from him, landing on her mother. There was a long, uncomfortable silence as they stared at each other, Nicolette’s mother smiling warmly. Something about Nikki’s posture, the set of her mouth perhaps, made him suspect that she was alarmed, then gradually angry.

He wondered if perhaps Rose had invited him in against Nicolette’s wishes.

[_ "Greg dropped by -- I just thought..." Rose hesitated as Nicolette's eyes narrowed, then an embarrassed look crossed her expression, "I said 'Greg' didn't I?" She looked at Daniel apologetically, "Daniel -- I'm so sorry!" _]

She grinned conspiratorially at Daniel, her smile bringing an answering smile in return, “I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached!”

A brief silence ensued, a silence which Daniel found unbearable, “Hey Nikki!” he sad weakly.

“Would you like some lemonade, sweetie?” Rose asked.

Daniel started to agree but Nicolette interrupted him, “We were just going to go for a walk, Mother. Is that alright?”

[_ Again, he thought he saw that flash of irritation before she smiled, "Of course. Don't be long, 'Colette -- you have homework still to do." _]

Nicolette nodded, “Yes Mother.”

She glanced at Daniel, gesturing with her head as she turned, heading back to the front door.

 

Ten minutes later they were walking side by side down the quiet suburb they both lived in. Silence had settled between them, broken only by the occasional passing car. Though the afternoon was warm and sunny, even the cheerful birdsong around them couldn’t ease the arctic silence. The both waved desultorily to Mr. Duitz as he washed his Mercedes, whistling to himself as he worked, the sun reflecting off his bald patch.

Daniel took a deep breath, then took the plunge, “Nikki,” he started.

He was startled when she turned to face him, her eyes brimming with unshed tears, her voice tight with anger, “Daniel, don’t come to our house any more, okay?”

He stopped, taken aback, “What…?”

“Or at least make sure I’m home before stopping by…” she abruptly noticed that he wasn’t walking with her any more, had stopped several paces ago. He suddenly felt as though he couldn’t breathe, his heart beating so hard he felt it in his fingertips, “Are you breaking up with me?”

[_ She stared at him in shock, "Breaking up with you?" she repeated, clearly baffled at the non-sequitur. Something loosened in his chest at her confusion. Understanding flooded her features as she replayed their conversation. She shook her head, some of the anger draining out of her; he realized it hadn't been directed at him -- not all of it, at least. He resumed walking, quickening his pace until they were once again side by side. _]

“Okay,” he said uncertainly. “Does it have something to do with your mom? I mean, she wasn’t talking about you, just your little brother, a little bit.”

Nicolette glanced sideways at him, then shrugged uncomfortably, “Just promise, okay? Call or text first.”

[_ He hesitated, puzzled what this was all about before finally nodding reluctantly, "I promise -- I won't show up unannounced again." _]

They walked in silence for moment, lost in their respective thoughts as a warm summer breeze laden with the smell of jasmine teased Nicolette’s hair.

“Does this have something do to with Greg?” he asked, the question popping out before he even had a chance to consider it.

She glanced at him, brows lowering, “…Greg? No.”

They walked in silence for moment, Daniel mentally kicking himself the whole way.

Nicolette broke into his thoughts, “How long were you alone with Mother?”

He frowned, puzzled at the apparent jump in the conversation. He shrugged uncomfortably, “Five minutes, maybe ten.”

Nicolette nodded absently, but didn’t add anything. He decided to let the matter drop.

“Nikki, listen…” he hesitated, his eyes focused on the street ahead of them, “I’m sorry. With my father’s… My mom’s not taking it very well.”

Nicolette frowned sadly as she lightly touched his elbow, “No, why would she?”

Daniel nodded absently, hesitating briefly as he regathered his courage, “I’ve sort of been, well, not myself.”

He hesitated again, the set of his shoulders radiating hurt and shame, “Up in the hills…I’m sorry, Nikki. I wasn’t…”

She frowned at him as he searched for words; she wanted to interrupt, to make this easier for him, but something held her back. She sensed she’d be doing him a disservice if she did. She clenched her jaw, struggling to maintain her silence.

“I’m in the Wilderness,” he said finally “and it’s…hard finding my way back.”

“The Wilderness?” she asked, the question surprised out of her.

A faint smile touched his lips, but it conveyed such a wealth of sadness and hurt that she finally gave in. He looked down at her in surprise when she linked arms with him. Though his eyes were watery with unshed tears, his voice was even when he spoke, “Yeah. I think it was something Mom and Dad got from their Peace Corps days. Mom explained it as being lost or alone and feeling far from help, or…civilization, I guess. Out in the darkness.”

“The Wilderness,” she repeated softly, rolling the concept and its encapsulating word around in her mind, trying it on.

[_ "I'm not saying it excuses anything I did -- I'll do better and make it up to you, I promise -- but I wanted to try and explain." _]

[_ She nodded thoughtfully, "Okay. I'm not angry at you, Dan -- and I meant what I said up in the hills." _]

He heard the change in her voice as she added, “But if you do that to me again, you can pretty much assume we’re broken up.”

[_ He chuckled, "I know. But I won't -- so there's no need to worry. And I feel the same way about you...about us." _]

She nodded, hearing the certainty in his voice.

They walked in silence, listening to the birdsong and the distant rush of traffic down the 1.

She glanced thoughtfully over her shoulder, her thoughts turned inward as she mused, “The Wilderness.”

He briefly sensed something close to the surface, something dark and misshapen. He felt a return of the nameless foreboding that had been troubling him lately. He debated whether he should confront her about it, whether he should try and drag it out into the open, hoping that maybe exposing it to the light would kill it. He hesitated, wondering if now was the right time, what with their reconciliation so recent, with everything that was already going on.

[_ Nicolette's phone rang -- her mother calling to check up on her. _]

And just like that, the moment was gone.

 

How many other opportunities did I miss?, he wondered

He shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the narrow road as it rose up into the forested hills.

He passed through a patch of exceptionally thick forest, full of undergrowth and afternoon shadow, instinctively slowing as he approached the Summer Cottage’s driveway, a beaten up ribbon of dark gray asphalt winding its way through the trees away from the narrow, one-and-a-half lane road. Daniel knew that Dane’s home was situated on a 30 acre plot of land; that was probably why he’d bought it…or at least, why Dane’s father had bought it.

He rounded the bend, arriving at the open gravelly area which served as a car park for the house. He noted that the T was haphazardly parked next to a little white Rabbit coupe. Shelly and Dane were both home, then. More than once, Dane had tried to buy Shelly a newer car, but she had refused, saying that the Rabbit was a gift from her parents and it would hurt their feelings if he replaced it. Daniel suspected that was why Dane had bought the T -- ostensibly for himself, but really to please Shelly, allowing her to drive it whenever she wanted. Daniel shook his head, chuckling at the thought of being able to buy a Ferrari as a toy for a girlfriend; he wished he had that kind of disposable income for...

He chuckled again, letting the thought go as he parked.

He climbed the concrete steps that rounded the side of the hill from the carpark behind the house to the front walkway, pausing briefly to enjoy the view from the front porch. The house was perched on a small ridge rising above the surrounding forest, giving spectacular views of the surrounding hills and the long slope down to the coast. On clear days, the house afforded views all the way to the ocean.

He turned as the door opened behind him, Shelly standing in the doorway, smiling in welcome, wearing a simple but flattering sea blue shift dress, her feet bare.

“I heard your truck! Come in!”

He couldn’t help but to grin in response, seeing Shelly standing in the doorway to what was really a fairly modest ranch style home. He couldn’t shake the feeling that she was a kid playing house, and that her parents would be home any minute.

The interior of the home was wide open and spacious, designed to feel airy and open, with the bedrooms on a second floor in back. Two story bay windows let in the afternoon light, making the home cheery and welcoming, the wooden floor and paneling lending a sense of warmth and comfort.

“Dane’s on a call for the club -- some wrinkle about zoning or liquor licenses or something. He might be a little while.”

She wrinkled her nose in irritation as she added, “One of the guys he does business with is being a serious pill.”

Daniel nodded, following her to the soft suede couch sitting like an island of comfort in the spacious interior, the stairs to the bedrooms on the second floor behind it.

“Grab you a beer? Dane has some Belgian imports -- the ones with the weird stumpy little bottles.”

“Sure!”

He smiled at her enthusiasm as she bounced immediately back to her feet; it was hard not to get swept up when she was in an upbeat mood. He heard her clattering in the kitchen, followed by the breathy fwoosh as she opened the bottle then padded back from the kitchen a moment later. She settled on the couch, folding her legs under her, unconsciously pulling a coarse brown knitted afghan over her exposed knees.

He cautiously sipped the beer, finding it hoppy and bitter, but palatable. There was a long silence as Daniel contemplated Shelly, realizing that he barely spoke to her despite his friendship with Dane. Suddenly feeling awkward and shy, he stared down at the beer in his hands, making a show of studying the label as he ventured with forced nonchalance, “So, last night…”

Her smile faded, her expression becoming serious, “That was pretty scary.”

His shoulders tightened involuntarily, feeling self-conscious and defensive before she clarified, “I never even saw the car until it was practically parked over Nikki. How’s she doing? We’ve only exchanged a couple of texts.”

Daniel nodded, relaxing slightly as he realized she wasn’t going to bring up his flashback. Even though he understood the cause of his flashbacks, he still felt an acute sense of embarrassment when they caused scenes like last night. He had spent the better part of the day replaying his memories of the evening, trying to find any hint of corroborating information for Nikki’s story, while simultaneously trying to gauge his friends’ reactions. As he’d replayed those memories, he had realized that Nikki had handled the situation well, barely losing her cool after her near-death experience. Somehow, she found the sense of perspective to not only deal with her own fright and pain, but had managed to find the will to help him level out after he’d lost it. He knew from personal experience that that kind of self-possession under stress was rare…rare and almost always borne of experience.

“She seemed okay last night -- a little banged up, maybe, but she was holding up pretty well. We texted a couple times this morning when she went to work...”

His voice trailed off as he felt a dull ache in his chest, feeling the truth he’d been struggling with over the last day settling around his heart like constricting barbed wire, pulling tight, tearing him with each heart beat. He’d been grappling with it since the club, feeling as though something he’d built up in his mind was finally slipping away from him. It had been easy to build up fantasies for the future based on idealized and increasingly distant history, but on some level, he was uncomfortably aware that his memories were idealized -- that it was easy to remember the good times while glossing over the bad ones. But increasingly he’d found himself reflecting on some of the other times; the arguments, the moments where it felt as though an inexplicable gulf had opened between them. It was that inexplicability that disturbed him most deeply, made him question the basis on which their love had been based.

It suggests that maybe I had wanted our relationship to be something that it never was. If the basis of our relationship had been rooted in wishful thinking and denial, he wondered, does that have larger implications for my feelings about her? Should it?

But even if their relationship hadn’t been based on, well, falsehoods seemed too strong a word…misperceptions? Even if it had been based on misperceptions, was the girl that had left the same as the girl that had returned to Half Moon Bay? If the girl that had come back was so different, then the love he still felt in his heart for the girl of his memories…that love no longer had an outlet. Was loving someone that only existed in his memory any different from loving someone who had died? He felt his throat closing at the thought, the ache in his chest expanding until it became unbearable.

Shelly quietly watched the emotions play across his face, giving him a little time to sort through his feelings. With surprising gentleness, she cut into his thoughts, “What’s going on in there?”

He nodded, realizing he’d fallen silent and probably had been for the better part of a minute. He felt his heart constrict further as he struggled to find an answer that summed up his thoughts and feelings. When he found the answer, he fought to keep his voice level, embarrassed to be showing so much emotion to someone he barely knew, “She’s gone, isn’t she?”

Shelly cocked her head to the side, a quizzical expression crossing her countenance, “Gone? What do you mean?”

“Nikki. The girl I knew and…” he coughed, struggling to clear the lump in his throat before he could continue, “Wherever she’s been, that girl is gone now. I guess, subliminally, I had sort of hoped…”

He trailed off, unable to continue.

She nodded, a soft sympathetic smile playing about her lips, “Maybe. But is that really necessarily such a bad thing?”

He frowned, feeling his stomach clench in anticipation of another variation of the “other fish in the sea” talk -- one he had weathered endlessly over the years, had long since acknowledged as the truth, even as he struggled to let go and move on. He hated that speech, because it so fundamentally missed the point -- that Nikki had so grown into his life that it felt as if her disappearance had torn away a piece of himself. Other fish in the sea couldn’t restore that missing piece, and he’d struggled for years to fill that void. ‘Other fish’ was a solution for a wholly different problem. Every time he’d heard that speech, he had felt that much more alienated and alone; he had come to see that speech as the clearest indication possible that he wasn’t being listened to or understood. He steeled himself for another variation of that dismissal, feeling too weary and heart sore to try and explain -- and honestly, feeling silly and histrionic that such a distinction would loom so disproportionately large in his internal landscape.

But Shelly surprised him.

“You’re assuming that she’s come back a stranger. What if the opposite is true? What if she’s come back distilled -- more intensely filled with the things that made you love her in the first place?”

“What if she hasn’t?”

“But what if she has?” she countered. Shelly shrugged, adding a brushing-away gesture with her right hand, gently brushing away his argument, “If you’re only focusing on the simple fact that change has happened, you could be missing the changes that represent improvements. Or new things worth loving.”

He felt his throat tighten as he realized that she was offering him something that the long years of absence had made impossible to offer himself -- hope that it might still work, that enough of the girl he remembered might still remain for his feelings to be meaningful. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, the strangely shaped beer bottle dangling from his left hand, momentarily forgotten.

“Damn,” he swore with feeling, momentarily overcome with a confusing, painful mixture of hope and vindication. He had a brief mental image of himself looking down on all the ‘fish in the sea’ people, shaking his fist at them and shouting ‘I told you so!’.

He felt as though he had never wanted to believe in something as much as he wanted to believe in her simple suggestion, while simultaneously dreading the incipient feelings of vulnerability which that breath of hope brought. He glanced at her when she rested her hand lightly on his forearm, her fingertips cool. He stared into her eyes, momentarily losing himself in their depths as she smiled softly. For the first time, he felt acutely jealous of Dane, that he should find someone like Shelly and share such a deep connection with her.

“Are those contacts, or are your eyes really that blue?”

She smirked, the faintest hint of color suffusing her cheeks, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

He chuckled, feeling relief at the release, small as it might be...but she didn’t withdraw. He felt her hand tighten as the smile faded a little bit, “She’s seen you when you’re not at your best -- does it look like she’s running away?”

She let that sink in, settling back on the couch and taking a sip of tea from her mug, wrapping her hands around it, briefly resurrecting the childlike impression he’d had when she’d first opened the door.

“I know you’ve got a lot to think about, Dan, but having a mystery to explore isn’t necessarily a bad thing; ‘different from expectations’ isn’t necessarily ‘worse than expectations’.”

He nodded thoughtfully, still reeling with emotion. He still felt the barbed-wire wrapped around his heart, but it felt as though the edges had dulled a little, the constriction loosened.

She smiled as she casually asked, “What are your plans tonight, Dan?”

He shrugged, feeling his stomach flip over with butterflies as he answered, “I’ll probably be meeting Nicolette at her new place after she gets off work at Harry’s, which, on a Saturday, is probably going to be pretty late -- close to 10 or 10:30.”

Shelly smiled, clearly pleased to hear the news.

Abruptly, she bounced to her feet, the afghan covering her lap tumbling to the floor, “Oh! I almost forgot!”

He watched as she almost skipped on the way to the kitchen, feeling a moment of trepidation as he listened to sounds of cutlery and the clink of glass. A moment later, she returned, wearing a triumphal smile as she presented him with an opaque rectangular tupperware box.

“I made some gluten-free, vegan, lemon pound cake this morning. I made an extra one in case you dropped by.”

He smiled, accepting the tupperware, feeling as though she’d handed him a plastic container stuffed with a sleeping raccoon -- unpredictable, possibly dangerous, definitely something with no obvious use. He put the tupperware on the glass and steel coffee table, reluctantly reminding himself not to forget it. Shelly was sometimes a wizard with gluten free and vegan baking, but other times...

He suppressed a violent shudder, hoping this was one of her wizardly endeavors.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Questions Asked

 

SHE jumped when he finally knocked on the door, pausing with her hand on the doorknob, heart pounding as she fought not to pant. Her throat constricted painfully as she leaned forward, pressing her forehead against the door, feeling the cool foggy night through the whitewashed wood.

I can do this, she thought.

She continued to hesitate, hating herself for her fear, wanting to be anywhere but here. When Daniel knocked again -- more insistently this time -- she took a deep breath and tried to force a calm, welcoming smile as she opened the door.

Daniel smiled, “Hey Nikki! What’s going on?”

He stepped forward, surprising her as he enfolded her in a hug that made her heart ache.

He stepped back, studying her, noting her welcoming smile had already faded. She was wearing her white knit sweater over her pale blue jeans. It was a casual look, but one which appealed to him, making her seem both relaxed and vulnerable. He wanted to fold her into his arms again.

“Nikki?”

She shook her head, guilt and shame warring as she realized his happiness at seeing her was going to be short lived.

“I have a little private deck area behind my place. It came with some lawn furniture.”

She picked up a heavy men’s fleece jacket and quickly pulled it on over her sweater.

Daniel nodded, suppressing a shiver at the prospect of walking back out in the chilly evening. The fog quickly enveloped them with its clammy embrace as they stepped into the Magnusson’s back yard, then followed the paving stones around the side of Nikki’s cottage to the lawn furniture sandwiched between the back of her cottage and the darkness leading down to the beach. A low hedge peppered with faintly aromatic pink flowers separated the Magnusson’s backyard from public land, paralleling a small asphalt pathway which wound its way up and down the coastline. Beyond the pathway, the ground sloped steeply toward the narrow, rocky beach, the slope covered with sere coastal grass, nearly waist high and faintly glimmering where the light from cottage reached it. Nikki thought it was cool that she had her own private pathway onto the beach from her home; she liked listening to the waves crashing against the rocky coastline when the wind came up. The night was mysterious and fey, the beach grass intermittently whispering to itself beyond the island of illumination created by the patio flood lights, underlaid by the hidden pulse of the ocean, beating against the rocks.

She settled onto one of the white, rococo iron chairs which surrounded a heavily constructed inlaid patio table, the uneven tiles forming an oceanic pattern of blues and greens. She crossed her legs as she sat, a detached part of her mind aware that Daniel watched the gesture before realizing he was being obvious and quickly looked away. It confused her, his glance making her feel simultaneously self-conscious and sexy.

Daniel sat across from her, the darkened ocean to his left. The fog closed them in, isolating them in a moment of timeless intimacy. They were illuminated by lights mounted on the cottage, though the fog tended to diffuse the light, giving everything a soft, dreamlike aspect.

They sat in silence, contemplating the sound of the distant waves as they crashed into the coastline, the fog enhancing the night’s mysterious, unpredictable quality -- it was a night made for sharing secrets, and they instinctively recognized it, unconsciously reacting to it.

After a long pause, Daniel leaned forward, a question on his lips. She stared back at him expectantly, her dark eyes drawing his gaze and holding him, causing him to lose his train of thought in their depths.

How can she still do that to me?, he wondered. It’s been seven years, and she can still stop my thoughts in their tracks.

He wanted to keep staring, wanting the silence to stretch, not wanting to risk hearing anything that couldn’t be taken back or denied. But he remembered his confusion from the night before. His hopeful optimism slowly drained away, absorbed by the wild, mysterious coastal weather, and some subliminal cue that warned him of impending change.

“Well?”

They both heard the strain in his voice.

Nicolette winced at the question. She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the pack of cigarettes. When Daniel frowned at the ashtray she put on the counter, Nicolette couldn’t keep the snarl out of her voice, “It soothes me -- and since I’m going to be... I’ll take any assistance I can get to help me through this,” implying that she’d get none from him, causing him a small twinge of responding anger, “since Dutch courage isn’t really an option,” she fingered her necklace, “I’ll have to settle for French courage instead.”

Daniel, surprised at the vehemence in her tone, sat back, feeling her anger. He was startled to find himself involuntarily chuckling in nervous anticipation as he replayed her words, “I, mm, don’t think ‘French Courage’ means…has anything to do with smoking.”

Nicolette eyed Daniel uncertainly for a moment, then snorted, “Well…whatever you call it when you smoke a cigarette for courage.”

She glared at him as she tried to light her cigarette, her shaking hands belying her facade of calm. He watched her for a moment, then reached across the table, taking her hands in his, steadying her. She hesitated at the contact, her cheeks heating as she focused on the lighter, momentarily unable to meet his eyes. He leaned back a moment later. For one instant, he thought she was going to grab at his hands, prevent him from withdrawing. He was disappointed when she didn’t.

After a long drag, she broke the silence, “But I know which questions you’re going to want me to answer first.”

She began ticking off the questions on her fingers, “Why did I leave in the first place, and what have I been up to since I left?”

Daniel nodded, then gestured for her to pick one and answer it.

She took a long shaky draw on her cigarette, watched as the smoke trailed away and joined with the fog. Nikki wanted this conversation to be over, to be through with it. She wanted to sink onto her makeshift bed with the heavy comforter pulled over herself. She doubted she would sleep much, but the thought of being able to lie still, to be invisible and unnoticed…

She realized she desperately wanted a drink; the last time she wanted a drink this badly…well…if she was being honest, it was the day the bus dropped her off after her long ride from Southern California.

Nicolette sighed as she realized she was stalling. She stared out into the night as she sifted through her words, waiting for her throat to loosen. She closed her eyes, recalling the memories to her mind’s eye, surprised that the inflicted hurts were still fresh.

“Nikki—“ “I had to—“

They both stopped and stared at each other, waiting for the other to pick up the thread. Daniel felt his frustration rise, then abruptly give way to amusement as Nicolette smiled in unison with him. For a brief moment, it felt like she had never left, that they still could lapse into the same familiar and sometimes irritating patterns. For just one instant, he felt as though everything could resume as they had left off, as though everything that had happened in the intervening years had been little more than a vacation.

Then she began her story.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Second Arrow

 

“I quarreled with Mother, “ she began, images of ugly yellow linoleum rising up in her mind’s eye as

 

she stared dazedly at the ugly yellow and green linoleum between her hands, feeling the hard surface of the floor against her knees. She blinked, focusing with difficulty on the can of pineapples as it settled to stillness. She watched it, wondering hazily why she was on her hands and knees in her mother’s kitchen. A drop of bright red blood stained the floor, followed a moment later by a second. She stared at the drops of blood, blinking in puzzlement at the bright stain of color sharply contrasting with the ugly mushrooms-and-dandelions pattern of the floor.

Wow, a disconnected part of her brain observed, she went straight for the big guns -- she could have started with the salt shaker or the turmeric, but instead skipped the spice rack and went for the canned goods in the cupboard.

As a third drop of blood dotted the floor, a numb spot behind her right ear began to pulse with a dull fibrous pain, making her eyes water. She levered herself up, using the doorknob of the kitchen’s side door for support. Almost immediately, the pain blossomed, as if the back of her skull was trying to pull itself free. She made a pained noise in her throat as she lightly touched the back of her head, feeling tacky wetness on her fingertips. When her fingertips brushed the tender spot through her hair, the pain stole her breath, filing her vision with pulsing white stars.

She tilted forward, listing as the world lurched to the left; only her death grip on the kitchen doorknob kept her from collapsing. Her right ear burned an instant after a wasp-like buzz registered. She flinched as a can clipped her ear, then hit the plasterboard wall, leaving a faintly yellowish green ichor radiating from its point of impact. The can tumbled to the floor, making a strange gurgle as it began voiding its liquid contents onto the linoleum.

Without pausing to look back, she forced herself to her feet to pull open the kitchen door, intent on fleeing her mother’s insane wrath before she reached the knife block next to the spice rack. As Nicolette pulled the door open, the afternoon sunshine beckoned, offering escape from the madness at her back. Something heavy hit her low on her back, almost bringing her to her knees as pain filled her abdomen and began climbing all the way to her throat. She stumbled to her knees, dimly aware of the uneven slate slabs of the patio tearing skin. She fought not to vomit as agony tunneled her vision.

Had to be the canned tomatoes, she thought hazily, only canned tomatoes to the kidneys can cause that kind of pain.

[_ Once again on hands and knees, she forced herself to a kneel and pulled the side door shut -- Nicolette didn’t think her mother would risk throwing anything through the glass on the kitchen door; that might attract unwanted attention. The disturbance might require an explanation to the neighbors, possibly even the police. Certainly it would be gossip fodder about the Cooper family. Nicolette suspected that would embarrass her mother; Rose would do anything to avoid that. _]

I probably shouldn’t have called her a whore, Nicolette thought ruefully, nevertheless feeling a moment of primal satisfaction at Mother’s response. Nicolette sank back to hands and knees, panting, wavering on the edge of vomiting for what seemed like an impossibly long time before the pain finally began to recede.

Kidney shots are the worst, she thought as a modicum of rationality slowly reasserted itself. Behind her, the loud clack of the lock suggested the current discussion with Mother was over. When the ache in her back and abdomen lessened, she sat back on her heels, wincing, resting her hands on her thighs for support. The desire to vomit briefly reasserted itself, but she clenched her fists and squeezed her eyes shut as she resisted, forcing the nausea down. She hated throwing up more than almost anything else.

[_ Still dazed, she forced herself to stand, the heavy fibrous pulsing in the back of her head keeping her nausea from fully dissipating. Without any conscious destination in mind, she walked unsteadily along the back pathway and let herself out of the gate onto the sidewalk in front of her home. Unthinkingly, she turned right -- away from Daniel’s home -- and began walking, feeling as though her head was wrapped in cotton as she walked toward downtown, to a bus to the city, then a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles to meet up with her cousin Francesca. Those three drops of blood filling her vision for hours afterward... _]

 

“I still dream about those three drops of blood on the linoleum,” she finished, a hint of unsteadiness clinging to her voice. She looked up, intending to shrug it off and continue her story, but was brought up short at his expression. He stared at her in shocked silence. He had always been polite to Nicolette’s mother and gotten a sort of icy, malevolent courtesy in return…but he could never shake the feeling that she was imagining plunging a potato peeler into the back of his neck as soon as he turned around or that she was debating whether she could get away with sprinkling ground glass in his lemonade when he wasn’t looking. He was horrified by Nicolette’s story, but somehow not as surprised as he would have guessed.

“Jesus, Nikki,” he breathed, “I knew things were bad, but…”

She smiled at him humorlessly, her bitterness silencing him, despite the dull ache he felt for her. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, as if he could somehow protect her from her memories…but some intuition told him the contact wouldn’t be welcome at that moment.

“I managed to get up and get out of the house, though I was still bleeding by the time I reached the bus stop downtown.”

He pointed to his eyebrow as he interrupted, “Is that how you got that?”

She glared at him, “No. You wanted this conversation and I promised that I would explain, but let’s set some ground rules; you can’t keep interrupting me—“

“Okay,” he responded automatically, then winced. “Sorry.”

“This is already difficult,” she added, nearly choking up.

He nodded, uneasy, struggling with the desire to enfold her in his arms and tell her everything was going to be okay, that it wasn’t worth it if her story was going to be that painful…that maybe he didn’t need to know, after all. But deep in his heart, despite his misgivings, he knew that without the whole story, his distrust and self-doubt would fester until it consumed him, quietly poisoning anything they might build together. He struggled with these countervailing impulses, the silence stretching. In the end, he just waited, wishing the whole evening was over.

She took several deep breaths, unaware of his internal struggle, “So I walked out and kept on going until I’d reached downtown. The week before that, I’d texted my cousin Francesca, basically inviting myself over for a visit. We had agreed that I could stay at her place, but we’d never agreed when I would actually head down there. I rode Greyhound to SoCal -- to Los Angeles, showing up on her doorstep without any warning. It wasn’t very nice, but I was desperate to get away from Mother; it felt like one more minute -- one more second -- would destroy what little of me was left.”

He spoke quietly, his voice almost drowned by the susurration of the breeze through the night grass on the other side of the trail, “That’s…that sounds unspeakable.”

His brow furrowed as a new thought occurred to him, “How long were you planning to go? How long did you know?”

She hesitated, sensing some of the thought underlying the question. Blinking rapidly, she shook her head, “I don’t know. I think it was just…something I thought about as a possible escape. The thought was always there, the plans made as a comfort more than…than as something premeditated. But as I got more desperate…”

She shook her head, feeling a tear spilling onto her cheek, the chill air instantly cooling the track, “When things finally reached a head, it all just…happened.”

Still speaking quietly, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me things were so desperate?”

Momentarily voiceless, she shook her head, fighting to speak.

“I tried.”

He stared at her, his anger kindling as he started to argue, to defensively reject her simple assertion: You could have tried harder!

But the thought stopped before he could give it voice. Something in her tone, some plaintive note brought him up short, bringing back echoes from several conversations he’d had with his VA therapist about her -- conversations that wouldn’t have been possible even as recently as six months ago. He wondered if it was related to the change which had precipitated the end of his relationship with Carla.

Maybe Nikki could have tried harder, he thought, but was I shutting her out? Is that why…?

He took a shaky breath as he felt the misshapen truth around his heart twist a little tighter.

Nicolette paused to light another cigarette while Daniel was momentarily lost in thought, her hands shaking as she struggled to keep the lighter steady, chasing the flame with the tip of her cigarette. When it finally ignited, she took a shaky drag, studying Daniel briefly before continuing, “So I crashed with her. From there…well, from there it was just one long series of bad decisions. Looking back, I think every time I had a choice of whom to trust, I invariably found the least trustworthy person in the room and immediately attached myself.

“When it started to seem like ‘Cesca was getting nervous -- everyone in my family was afraid of Mother -- I took up her boyfriend’s friend’s offer to stay at his place. The second I walked in the door, I knew It was a mistake, but I didn’t have any choice; if I bailed, it meant going back to Mother -- I had no money and nowhere else to go. I was already worried ‘Cesca was going to rat me out. She didn’t, but when I spoke to her later, she said it was probably a good idea if she didn’t know where I was.”

She sighed heavily, watching the end of her cigarette turn a brighter orange as she contemplatively blew her smoke over it, “But even so, I nearly gave up and went home after a couple days at his place. Roger and his roommates were pervy, but Roger was the worst of the bunch. Sometimes, I would wake up at night, and find him in my bedroom, watching me. Sometimes he’d do stuff.”

She glanced over at Daniel, startled into silence when she saw him snarling and holding onto the table with a white-knuckled grip. She shook her head and hastily clarified, “Never anything to me. The first few times, I woke up, completely unsure whether I’d dreamed him there. Bastard never said anything, so I always just assumed…” her voice trailed off as she shrugged.

“Either way, I needed to come up with rent money, but I had no skills or work experience and was underaged for most things. At one of my other roommate’s suggestion, I got Roger to get me a fake id -- which put me in even more debt to that jerk -- and applied for a job in this little club on Sunset.”

“A club?” he asked, a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He already knew the answer, but couldn’t keep himself from asking, hoping…

Irritated at the interruption she snarled, “Yes, a strip club. Are you going to let me tell this or not?”

He raised his hands in surrender, struggling not to snarl a snide rejoinder.

She was doing what she had to do to survive, he told himself with grudging admiration. His chest tightened with sympathy as he wondered how scared she must have been.

“I slung drinks for a couple of months, but it wasn’t enough for rent and the debts I owed. When Joey -- the manager -- started pushing me to take the stage, I did.”

Daniel felt himself tightening up. He could imagine the scene, could see in his mind’s eye: Nicolette, exhausted after an evening’s shift (because he knew she never did work in half-measures), being cozened by some slick-haired sleaze to get up on the stage and take her clothes off or be fired or…God knows what. He was surprised how angry the mental image made him, and how angry he was at her for giving in and being willfully complicit in surrendering her modesty to a bunch strip-club zombies, staring at her while she showed them everything…

He looked up and caught her studying him as he realized she’d fallen silent. He fought to slow his breathing, to calm himself down.

In a small voice, almost a whisper, she offered, “If you want to leave, I’d understand…”

He stared at her, surprised at the suggestion. It had never occurred to him to leave before she finished her story; it didn’t seem fair not to hear her out -- especially knowing how hard this was. He’d asked for this, after all, had practically forced it -- it would be chickenshit not to see it all the way through, and cruel to make her do it again later.

“Finish,” he growled.

She nodded, “So I danced. The money was pretty good -- better than I expected. I guess I danced well, because a couple months after that, I was approached by an agent to do a photoshoot for a magazine,” she glared at Daniel's glower. “A skin mag, yes. In retrospect, I think it was a set up by Roger; I think he got a kickback for scouting me for an agent in the business -- Stanley Janacek. I spent about six months doing a photo tour of the skin mags and websites; it paid pretty well -- well enough that I could leave Roger behind. At that point he was starting to get scary, like he was nerving himself up to do more than watch me sleep.”

It’a a good thing this Robert character isn’t in the room, he thought, as a cold sensation settled in his stomach. How much worse is this going to get?, he wondered, studying her, comparing her curled in and defensive body language with the timeline she’d filled in. He wondered how much she had left out, how much there was yet to tell that could account for her shakiness and distress. He closed his eyes, steeling himself.

She shook her head, blinking rapidly, “So I made another brilliant decision and moved in with Stan.”

She stared sideways at him, studying his reaction. He did a good job hiding his reaction, but she could see the muscles standing out on his neck and the back of his right hand as he closed it into a fist. She could see the thought forming behind his eyes as he stared at her resentfully, angrily, You made me wait after all we’d been through, but when that sleaze comes along you spread your legs when he gets you a job at a porn mag…?

She looked away from his burning gaze, feeling the weight of his betrayal and hurt. She wanted to apologize, to offer some balm about Stan eventually getting what he deserved, something, anything to ease his pain; she hated seeing it, hated knowing she was partly (or wholly, depending how you looked at it) to blame. But there was nothing she could do about it now, except finish her story.

He couldn’t help thinking of the variety of magazines that had circulated through the barracks during his time in the military. He vividly recalled some of the glossy, sometimes disturbingly explicit photos; his mind kept trying to substitute Nikki -- the shy girl he had grown up with -- onto those pages, imagining his squadmates passing her around while they wiled away the hours between missions. He could hear Hurtz and Sanches critiquing the photographs, debating scores for each individual part of her, pretending to sound erudite and sophisticated around the degrading and sexual content of their conversations...doing other things with her, later. They had hated him when he was promoted to sergeant and took over the squad.

He interrupted her thoughts, his voice strangely toneless as he asked,“Skin rags, Nikki? Really?”

She looked pensive for a moment, ignoring the hint of disgust in his voice as she tried desperately to put some of her experiences into words, to help him make sense of her experiences, “When I was living at home, I was a non-entity. I barely existed to my parents, and I guess my younger sibs adopted the same attitude toward me out of self defense. I could wander through the house for days like a ghost…until something set Mother off.”

He blinked at the apparent non-sequitur, his distaste momentarily forgotten as he tried to anticipate the connection.

“It was hard getting in front of the cameras at first,” she continued, “doing some of the things they wanted me to do.” Nicolette glanced at him, once again intuiting the direction of Daniel’s thoughts, “No sex or anything, or least, not during my first pass through the skin mags, but some of it was…”

She remembered the embarrassment, the bewilderment, the overwhelming feelings of degradation of that first shoot as the photographer expertly ramped her up, pressuring her to make little concessions, starting with the buttons on her blouse, ending with…everything.

“But at the same time…suddenly I was the center of attention. Suddenly, everything was all about me, and me being there. Everybody was paying attention to me. I felt, I don’t know, important, alive…real. Without me, none of the light and movement and noise would be happening. It was all about me, the ghost become visible.”

Daniel studied Nicolette, watching as she sank into the vision in her mind’s eye, surrounded by people; photographers, stylists, assistants, maybe even set and prop people. But as she spoke, he could see a subtle change in her demeanor, a change he doubted she realized was visible; she became animated, enthusiastic…even excited. It disturbed him, made the woman sitting across from him seem alien. Things that he would expect to cause regret or shame or humiliation…he was instead seeing pleasure, excitement…even gratification.

Dimly, a word suggested itself, a word that he had never really seriously included in his vocabulary until he started spending time with a PTSD group that used to meet at the Catholic Church on weekends: validation. Briefly, Shelly’s words came back to him, suggesting that he’d found one of those mysteries to solve, reconciling the girl he thought he knew with this stranger sitting before him. The notion that she may have come back distilled still intrigued him. For one brief moment, the mystery hung shining before him along with the choice to put aside his hurt bitterness and disgust and explore this mysterious and suddenly exotic woman, to explore his feelings and see what might be found. He hung exactly in the balance, the vision Shelly had offered him on one side, his self-satisfied and involuted urge to hold onto his pain and feed that darker, destructive, petty side of his nature on the other.

But in some dim, atavistic recess of his brain, he intuited where the story was going, his unacknowledged jealousy fueling his feelings, making him struggle not to see her as dirty, reprehensible...contaminated, as if she was somehow complicit with Hurtz and Sanches and their ilk, their crude possession of her likeness somehow clinging to her. If he hadn’t been so overwhelmed, he might have realized the implications of his jealousy, perhaps pushed back those atavistic impulses and allowed himself to reach a different conclusion. But the mental image of her stripping for a room full of Hurtzes and Sancheses, spreading her legs in some cheap skin mag, while he -- and his love -- had been kept at a distance...

By the time Nicolette resumed her telling, Shelly’s words were lost to him; they would remain lost until it was almost too late.

Nicolette sighed, some of the fey energy draining out of her, the dark circles under her eyes seeming more visible, “The thing with the magazine tour is that they thrive on fresh meat. Once you’re no longer fresh, the photography gigs dry up and you’re back to dancing or working the floor...or doing other things, if you’re desperate, scared and not scared enough. By the time I was through with the photography tour...or it was through with me, really -- I had gotten used to the income. It just seemed impossible to continue without it. It didn’t help that Stan and I kind of brought out the worst in each other. When, as my agent, he suggested I show up for a movie shoot where I was supposed to be an extra -- nothing else, Stan assured me -- but that it would pay...I trusted him and took the bait.”

Nicolette nodded at Daniel's bitter, knowing expression, “Yeah, I wasn’t there as an extra. By the time I figured it out, the whole production schedule was depending on me doing my bit. I knew if I bailed, Stan would be super pissed and would probably be taking it out on me for weeks, and so many people there were depending on me...so I went through with it; I cried a little bit at first, but once I realized that everybody...that I was the center of attention, the impetus driving all that light and movement, it was like being asleep then suddenly being alive and important and, I don’t know...real, like I mattered -- only much more intensely so!”

You mattered to me!, he wanted to shout, feeling a curious heat rising through his throat and suffusing his body.

One word began reverberating through the unlighted corridors of his mind from the darker parts of himself that combat had taught him to tap into, the rageful, hateful part of himself that allowed him to survive where civilized impulses became counter-survival.

Defiled, that part of his mind suggested, thinking of the worst of his squadmates, she’s been defiled.

He hated the thought, hated the implied judgementalism, hated his own hypocrisy -- it’s not like he’d been particularly celibate after she’d left -- but he struggled to push the thought aside.

“It was like, I could use all the crazy things that Mother said and did to me, things she used to terraform my sexuality with shame and self-loathing, all the…other things. Once the director called ‘action’, all the rage and hatred and self-loathing would rise up, seeking an outlet, somewhere I could vomit it all out…and there would be my coworker, ready to receive it…”

Daniel watched, feeling a curious mixture of disgust and curiosity as his mind attempted to fill in the details. Her story didn’t feel finished, but she had lapsed into silence. He felt as though he could still get around his own prejudices, could still work his way through her story and find things that were admirable about it, despite the horror he felt at the extremes she’d been driven to by her bat-shit insane mother. He wanted to scream at her to be done, but her continued silence filled him with sinking dread.

He watched as she unconsciously pulled at the AlAnon pendant on the inner chain clinging to her throat. Wordlessly, he pointed to her necklace as she rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. She didn’t break her gaze from the ocean, but picked up his gesture from the corner of her eye, “I was just getting to that. It’s…” Nicolette closed her eyes, “I’d been in the industry for a few years, living with Stan, blowing through money. I had picked up some habits back when I was dancing, but those habits got worse when I started doing films. I…”

She glanced at him; tears had begun running silently down her cheeks. She wanted to explain, to offer him some reassurance, but after a moment, Nicolette realized that her reassurances would be empty.

She shrugged, the casualness of the gesture belying the tension in her body, “It was tough getting through the day after I left, but somehow it just kept getting harder. With fear of Mother still driving me, and without…”

She lapsed into silence, momentarily unable to continue.

Without what?, he wondered, without me? He wanted to snarl, “but you could have had me!”

“Some days I needed a little help, some days I needed a lot. I needed help waking up, needed help sleeping, needed help feeling, or not feeling, or forgetting. Then I needed help dealing with pain.”

She shrugged, not bothering to swipe the tears off her cheeks, “I told you Stan and I brought out the worst in each other. He used; when I started working films, I started using more. We used a lot. Coke, meth…uppers in the morning to get out of bed, Oxy to take the edge off the come down, ambien or Xanax to help me sleep, alcohol to feel good, E when I wanted to party. I was all over the place. Stan and I went to a lot of parties; a lot of those parties tended to get pretty wild. Whatever came my way, I did.”

“Cocaine and Oxycodone? That’s...really dangerous. Mixing any of that stuff... I pick up guys that mix all the time -- mostly as a favor to the ME's office, it seems like.”

Nicolette shrugged, “I didn’t care. Thing is, all that is really hard on your wallet. Both Stan and I were perpetually broke. It didn’t help that Stan probably stole from me, and I spent money…” she shook her head in remembered amazement “I spent a lot of money on stupid, stupid things. But when you’ve got a monkey riding your back…”

Daniel felt a chill sweep through him, a premonitory coldness. He didn’t want to hear the rest. He shifted in his chair uncomfortably while Nicolette paused to gather her courage.

“Stan’s mother had a bunch of friends she played bridge with -- an elderly bunch that was generally pretty wealthy. Stan heard that one of them -- a widow -- was going on a cruise or something. They did it all the time. He planned to break in while she was gone, lift some of her jewelry, then pawn it for cash to tide us over until my next shoot. By then I had built up a fairly successful brand, had a group of people I worked well with; I was working once or twice a week. I was making good money -- really good money -- but we were using pretty bad, spending ahead of my paydays.”

Daniel was disturbed when her voice became unsteady, the tears redoubling. He silently begged her to stop, considered telling Nikki to…but he was rooted to the chair, captive, already knowing the end of the story, but helpless to leave before he’d heard the final confirmation from her. To leave now would leave the slightest bit of uncertainty, and that just seemed…intolerable.

“I didn’t want to go -- I refused to go, but Stan...Stan could be pretty insistent when he wanted something -- wheedling, threatening, begging, intimidating...he could get mean. So I bought gloves and dark clothes and on the day Stan chose, I went. I still tried to argue him out of it, but he just...just wouldn’t l-listen. Stan...Stanley got the dates...got the dates wrong.”

She paused, taking deep breaths, feeling her guilt and self loathing boiling out of their carefully managed compartment in her mind.

“Mrs. Hamilton was home, but we didn’t realize it until it was way too late.”

She stopped, unable to continue, feeling her carefully tended heart begin to break as the toxic filth in her mind spilled over, covering and drowning it, crushing it under its weight. She felt tears run down her cheeks as her breathing became labored.

Daniel watched as she collapsed in on herself, feeling his dread smothering the tiny kernel of hope that this chapter of her story could somehow come right, could still find some way, against all odds, to be okay. He knew the conclusion, but he still needed her to finish it; in that moment, he hated her for coming back and disrupting his healing, for giving him hope and then taking that hope away, for revealing the mental image of her which he had put on a pedestal and clung to concealed something putrid and rotten; he had just been too deluded by his own desires to see that truth.

“And then?” he asked coldly, the strain of appearing calm giving his voice a roughened edge.

She shook her head, her voice strained and full of surprise that he’d even have to ask, “And then?” She closed her eyes, a fresh river of tears running down her cheeks, “Stan found Mrs. Hamilton -- he panicked when she freaked, I guess. I didn’t see it happen, but by the time I caught up to him, she was already in pretty bad shape.”

Her face crumpled as she paused, struggling to continue, “Later, when we were both in custody, they were much more interested in Stanley. I guess the police had some grudge against him for other things that they’d investigated in the past. The DA offered me a deal...I took it. I testified against Stan and he went away for a very, very long time. I pled guilty to lesser charges -- but they dropped the conspiracy and robbery charges, along with the grand theft and aggravated assault charges they got Stan on. I was sentenced to four years in The CIW, though I got out six months early for good behavior...that was 3 weeks ago.”

He felt despair. As the silence stretched on, Daniel’s heart pounded in his chest.

Shelly was wrong, he thought bitterly, she isn’t more of what used to make her her. She’s less…she’s destroyed herself completely.

He wanted to be somewhere else with an overpowering need, somewhere out of this darkness and damp and horror. He stood up, silently turning to leave. He felt her hand clutching his arm as she half stood to reach him, her voice thick with tears, almost incomprehensible, “Dan, she didn’t—“

She fell silent as he roughly tore his biceps free of her grasp. She sank back down as he spun around, his eyes filled with tears despite his snarl, his clenched rage rendering his visage nearly unrecognizable. He ignored Nikki’s flinch as he reached across the table, his darker self momentarily in possession of his actions. Very gently taking her chin in his hand, he leaned forward. For one crazy instant, she thought he was going to kiss her, irrational hope igniting from the ashes. But when he had pulled her head until she was leaning over the table, the cigarette having long since burned down in her hand, forgotten, he said, with every ounce of coldness and betrayed loathing he could summon into his voice, “It would have been better if you had died.”

Even as he said the words, before he even registered her expression as her face crumpled, or he heard the harsh choking sob that she fought to suppress, he regretted his words, wished almost immediately that he could take them back.

But his pride and his anger had him, were running riot; he roughly thrust her head away as he turned on his heel and began walking through the Magnuson’s yard, swaying as if drunk, stumbling blindly along the path toward his car. His eyes burning as he reached for his keys, he pulled the door open and settled behind the wheel.

 

An hour later they were both sitting, staring out into the darkness, not thirty yards from each other. Nicolette felt numb and broken; everything she had hoped for when she returned to Half Moon Bay lay in ruins around her. It had taken the better part of half an hour to stop crying; even now, an occasional tremor ran through her, causing a fresh wave of tears to escape her burning eyes. She was chilled and exhausted, desolation settling over her. She hadn’t expected her story to be well received; Daniel’s reaction had been worse than anything she’d anticipated. She felt like a fool for hoping. She let her head fall forward, trying to shrink down into her jacket for warmth, though no amount of external heat could reach the frost she felt settling over her heart.

Daniel sat in his truck, darkness pressing in all around him. His knuckles and palms ached where he’d punched the dashboard when it had felt as though he couldn’t contain his pain and rage. Rage at Nikki, rage at Rose, rage at himself for wanting to take his words back, rage at the roaring darkness in his own mind.

She deserved it, he told himself, flinching away from the defensive note he was hearing in his own thoughts.

I need to get myself home, he thought, wishing for the security of his apartment, reflecting that this had been his worst weekend in a long, long time.

 

It was a long time before either one of them left; but it was probably just before dawn before they both found sleep, troubled and shallow as it was.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty: Harbingers

 

NICOLETTE sat on one of the ornate, rococo iron chairs surrounding the inlaid tile table behind her little cottage. The day was warm and sunny, though the temperature was already noticeably dropping as evening approached. In an hour or so, she supposed she would have to either go inside or fetch her jacket, but for now she was content to watch the westering sun as it began its descent toward the ocean. Distantly, she could hear the waves crashing against the rocks, carrying the smell of salt when the breeze turned her way, occasionally mingling with the light perfume from the hedge. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the pleasant associations the sea air brought. One of the things that she had most missed while she spent her time at the CIW was the smell of the ocean and the rhythmic susurration of the surf. It had surprised her how bitterly she missed it, how much of a balm it was to have it back.

She shook her head, dismissing the thought as she took a long drag on her cigarette; she had mostly quit the habit, but when she was especially stressed out, it seemed to soothe her nerves and help her put things in perspective. She was exhausted from two sleepless nights in a row, with only a couple of cat-naps to get through the day. Her exhaustion was a weight dragging her limbs, her skin strangely and uncomfortably sensitive; sometimes she fancied she could feel loud or unpleasant noises on her skin before she heard them.

She blinked, her eyes feeling gritty and dry; that was partly lack of sleep, and partly the aftereffects of a long day fighting a losing battle with tears. Nicolette wished she could have just stayed home and wrapped herself in her blankets, grieving and wallowing in self pity after the terrible conversation she’d had with Daniel the night before, but she needed to pay her share of rent, to put food on the table, and to save a little money for her plan…though it felt as though her plan had collapsed into ashes in the last 24 hours.

She checked her watch, noting that it was, in fact, only about 15 hours ago that Daniel had left. She could still feel the aftereffect of his parting words, feeling their corrosive burn, etching shame into her DNA. She wanted to be angry with him, had tried to summon righteousness to shield herself, but ultimately those feelings couldn’t stand her own harsh scrutiny.

If she was being brutally honest -- and when have I ever failed to do that , she thought bitterly -- Rose had broken her and she had run; her courage had failed. If she hadn’t broken...

She shook her head as the afternoon sun broke apart, her vision blurring with bitterness and rage, her jaw clenching until her teeth ached.

Over the last two years, she had fantasized the Conversation going myriad different directions; some of those possibilities had seemed hopeful or optimistic, some neutral but workable. The majority of endings she’d imagined had been the result of night terrors and moments of despair when she’d felt especially depressed or discouraged by her circumstances. She’d held out hope that things might come right as a means of getting herself through prison, through three and a half long, dull years, spent cycling between extremes of privation, boredom, and anxiety. The possibility that things might work out had been the light at the end of the very dark tunnel her choices had led her down.

For a little while, things had seemed as though they might come right -- as though she might just be able to undo some of the damage her abrupt and wordless departure had inflicted. But reality had a way of making a mockery of plans, especially when those plans were built on absurdly optimistic assumptions about people. She shook her head as she studied the glowing tip of her cigarette; his exit had hurt worse than just about anything she could have anticipated.

Man plans; God laughs, she thought with a bitter smile.

She watched the exhaled smoke get picked up by the late afternoon breeze, Well, you certainly didn’t help the situation by holding back. But what am I supposed to do? ‘Hey Dan, sorry I left, great to see you, I love you, ohbytheway I sucked dick on camera for a living, good thing prison put a stop to that, love the jacket…’

It was an impossible situation with only impossible solutions. She’d tried to console herself that his reaction suggested that he still had feelings for her. If that was so, then maybe, once he calmed down, things might just be salvageable. She had to believe that or admit that this whole thing was a fool’s errand and she was the biggest fool of all for relocating three thousand miles from her family in the hope that an old lover would take her back.

She knew the connection between herself and Daniel had been real, that her love for him had been true; she was convinced that the reverse had also been true…

She chuckled bitterly -- she sounded like a stalker, conjuring up justifications for her stalkery fantasy world...but up until last night, it hadn’t seemed like such a stalkery fantasy. She had considered calling or texting, hoping against hope that he would respond, but she knew the agony of waiting for a reply would be pure torture. Even if he did take her call or respond to her text -- what if his response was just as angry and hostile as it had been half a day ago? Nikki wasn’t sure she was ready to try and field that, just yet.

So, what then? Just wait and see? Are there really any other workable options?

She had considered trying to work through Shelly and Dane, perhaps sending messages through them to Daniel, but after some consideration, it seemed unfair to put them in the middle of something they didn’t understand. They were good people, had been good to her -- a virtual stranger -- but she felt as though she owed them better than to ask them to absorb Daniel's justifiable anger. Thinking about Shelly and Dane brought back the strangeness of her day -- she realized that she was at least partly avoiding it, avoiding dealing with it on top of everything else that was going on.

Shelly had visited earlier, though she hadn’t stayed very long. Nicolette’s day had been too strange and confusing and her unstable moods hadn’t helped. She hadn’t wanted to burden Shelly with her sleep-deprived crazy magnifying everything out of proportion and ended their afternoon early; she would have to call back and invite her over some other time.

She felt a crash coming soon, lack of sleep and the emotional extremes of the last two nights finally catching up to her.

Unconsciously, Nicolette flexed her right hand, surprised how quickly it was healing. She remembered the torn and bruised flesh left by the gold sedan’s antenna; when she’d looked at it this morning, her hand had been tender and clearly still injured, but it ached far less than it had when Daniel had bandaged it. In fact, it was the only injury from the club that she still felt, despite expecting her head to remain tender for several days. She frowned as she realized they hadn’t gotten around to comparing notes on the dreams, or on the strange men she’d seen in the club…the men she suspected had tried to…tried to kill her.

She shook her head, still struggling with the idea that anyone could possibly care enough about her to do that.

“Daniel…” she murmured.

It seemed doubtful that they would compare notes, now. She couldn’t explain it, but that realization filled her with anxiety. Things were going on that they needed to understand, things that had been left dangling because of their current…situation. She felt as though she was sitting in a house with a gas leak that remained unrepaired because the homeowner and the technician weren’t on speaking terms; if they didn’t get their act together soon…

If only that had been the limit of the strangeness she’d been experiencing. Her left hand twinged in sympathy under its white dressing; both her hands were now bandaged. It had happened at the shelter -- the animal shelter that she volunteered at on Sundays and any other time where she could spare the time and energy to ride the bus over the mountains away from the coast. It was a sad and frustrating job, seeing the number of animals that were abandoned, often as a result of owners leaving their animals unspayed or unneutered. They always seemed genuinely shocked when their pets showed up with kittens or puppies, or turned out to need more care than the owner anticipated.

That was what had led to this afternoon being so incredibly strange. It had started out as a typical Sunday -- she’d tried to sleep in, but hadn’t really managed to sleep at all. She’d eventually given up and gone for a run along the beach, trying to let the rhythmic susurration of the ocean and the focus on her breathing push back the previous night. After that, there really hadn’t been anything to do, so she’d hopped on public transport and shown up at the shelter to offer help with whatever needed doing. Most of the time, as a volunteer, that mostly meant cleaning -- cleaning out cages and cleaning out the meeting areas where potential adoptees met their pets. She had other duties that she often helped with which were, in some ways, more pleasurable, but in others were far more heartbreaking. Things which included walking and socializing the animals, sometimes helping to bathe and groom them, duties which often resulted in Nicolette feeling a connection with the animals under the shelter’s care.

It wasn’t one of her official duties, but she often found herself helping with the animals that were going to be euthanized; she had a way with the animals, some innate gift to bring them calm when they were stressed out. As a result, they often called her away from her ‘official’ duties to help with especially troublesome animals. Euthanization didn’t happen often at the shelter she worked at, but when animals were too ill or too dangerous, and were showing no sign of improvement, sometimes there was no other choice.

She rubbed her injured left hand, still feeling the sting as her mind went back over the strangeness that had led to that dog biting her. She had been walking between the cages, checking on the dogs before feeding them, generally feeling a little encouraged to see their enthusiasm to see her when she met Josie going the other way carrying a catch-pole. She felt her stomach sink, knowing that the catch-pole could only mean a very limited set of things, the most likely of which was that they were going to take out one of the “trouble animals” and prep it for euthanasia. The dogs were generally excited and enthusiastic to be pulled from their cages, but somehow they always knew when they were being pulled from their cage to be put down rather than walked or bathed or just moved out of the cage so it could be cleaned.

Nikki had felt her stomach drop immediately -- she suspected she knew which dog they were putting down; a little black and white sheltie named Racer. From day one when he had been brought in by his previous owner, he had been neurotic and a biter. Nikki felt bad for him; she couldn’t say what it was, but she knew Racer had been abused, and abused badly. He bore no visible injuries when he’d been brought in, but from get go, he’d been fearful and prone to biting if you weren’t careful. Perhaps it was her intuition about the abuse that allowed her to connect with Racer better than any of the other staff; Nikki was the only volunteer or permanent staffer that could handle Racer without getting bitten. She knew the staff had worked with Racer extensively to resocialize him, perhaps help him learn to trust people again, but progress had been slow and dubious at best.

She had been waiting to hear that he’d been put down for weeks, or expected to show up to find his cage empty or allotted to another resident when she showed up for her volunteer hours. When she saw Josie walking with the catch-pole, she knew instinctively that Racer’s time was up. Nicolette briefly considered trying to take him in, but she knew that he was just too dangerous for her to handle; besides, the Magnusons -- her landlord -- had a no-pets clause in their lease. Nicolette had turned and followed Josie back, hoping she might be able to help -- maybe even calm the poor Sheltie down enough that they’d give him more time, maybe enough time for a breakthrough.

In the end, it was no good -- Racer had backed into a corner the second he saw Josie and wouldn’t budge. She had been forced to use the catch-pole to get him out and control him, so he could be anesthetized prior to being injected with the cocktail that would kill him. It was more humane than the gas chamber that Nikki had heard was still in use in some less enlightened facilities, but she still hated it, hated to see it in action. In the end, she’d stepped into Racer’s cage and soothed him until he calmed enough for the technician to give him the injection. Nikki had stayed with Racer through the rest of his ordeal, calming and reassuring him, until he finally went to sleep with a quiet whine and a feeble thump of his tail, almost as if he was making a final plea, “See? I can be good...”

She knew that sort of anthropomorphization risked sentimental projection of her own feelings onto the animals, but nevertheless that was how she read Racer’s last moments. On top of everything that had happened over the last couple of days and nights, that had been a sort of breaking point for her, releasing a flood of tears. Josie and the tech had watched her sympathetically as she excused herself to the ladies room to compose herself. On the one hand she understood the necessity of putting down an animal that had no hope of adoption to free up the very limited resources the shelter had at its disposal, but she just couldn’t reconcile that with what seemed to her to be unfairly cruel; Racer hadn’t asked to be taken in by an abusive asshole or abused until he was hopelessly broken, or given up to the shelter where there was really only one possible outcome. It was that hopeless unfairness that tore at her, that reminded too much of her own history. Perhaps she had hoped for a sympathetic breakthrough -- if Racer could be saved, then perhaps there was hope for Nicolette as well.

It had taken her the better part of 10 minutes to get her composure back. She had intended to go and chase down Josie and Karl to apologize for her lack of professionalism, but decided to stop by the cooler to visit Racer before he could be properly cremated and put to rest. Nikki had wanted to apologize to Racer and say good bye, intending to see him before he could go stiff and hard, feeling like something that had never been real, a harsh reminder that the animus that had been Racer was gone. She had found him, unceremoniously wrapped in a plastic bag, left in a corner of the freezer, hopefully not to be joined by any other animals that day. Nicolette had always admired his black and white fur, making her wonder if he had been a purebred. She was the only one he would allow close enough to groom him, so she knew how lustrous and silky his fur could be when it was properly cared for. Shivering in the small, chilly space, she had knelt by him, struggling with her sorrow as she unwrapped him. She remembered patting his shoulder with her left hand (since her right hand was bandaged), prepared to murmur soothing words to send him on his way.

Racer had spasmed, emitting a snarling shriek that was only slightly less loud than her own and latched onto her hand. He had continued to shriek for nearly five seconds (which had felt closer to five minutes), before she’d managed to yank her hand free. Racer had almost immediately flopped down, once again completely still. When her fellow employees had come running, wondering what was going on (and perhaps a little panicky that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong), they had found her standing on the opposite side of the cooler from Racer, clutching her injured hand to her abdomen, eyes wide with shock, panting with her startlement and fear.

It had taken several minutes to get Karl to understand that Racer had bitten her; he kept asking where the attacking dog had gone. When their repeated questions finally awakened her indignant anger, she had pointed out that there was still blood on the dog’s muzzle. When they finally started to accept that Racer really had bitten her, they all kind of freaked out. They had finally called one of the vets over, and she’d taken the time to check Racer’s vitals, telling them that Racer was as dead as the steel floor he was laid out on, and that he’d definitely been dead since the injection. She had been troubled by Nikki’s injuries, treating Nikki’s hand, but nevertheless suggesting that Nikki go see a human doctor as soon as possible.

Everybody had been supremely unsettled -- even the vet that had checked Racer -- going so far as to suggest they stop euthanizing and double check the chemicals being used before any other animals were put down. In the end, the shelter had reluctantly asked Nikki to go home and get some rest. Nikki had decided not to take the bus, but had called Shelly instead, finding to her relief that Shelly had been at the Hillsdale shopping mall -- only 15 minutes away.

Riding back over the mountains in Shelly’s little white Rabbit, Nicolette had apprised Shelly of the weirdness at the shelter, then, in response to a hesitant inquiry, had reluctantly filled her in on her conversation with Daniel. Nikki’s retelling, though not as complete or as detailed as the version she’d given Daniel (omitting the details of poor Mrs. Hamilton’s robbery), had taken the rest of the afternoon, long enough for Shelly to stop by a coffee shop (not Coffee Beach, thank God!) and get coffees which they’d taken back to Nikki’s home. Nikki had been genuinely surprised that Shelly hadn’t peppered her with questions about her work as a dancer or in film; instead she’d patiently heard Nicolette out, then offered genuine sympathy.

Perhaps that’ll come later, she reflected, once the idea has had time to settle in.

Once Nikki had finished her retelling of the day’s strangeness and the conversation that she’d shared with Daniel, Shelly had insisted on checking her hand (the dog bitten one, not the antenna-slashed one), wincing at the bruised and punctured flesh, but relieved that the injury wasn’t as bad as she’d imagined. After that, they’d lapsed into a tense silence, where Nikki waited for the questions to begin, or the moralistic lecture that seemed sure to come.

But Shelly had just sat with her, offering assurances that Daniel would come around, he just needed time to process. But Nicolette suspected that even to her own ears, Shelly's assurances sounded hollow. They had lapsed into silence, Nicolette retreating into her own thoughts while Shelly silently offered her presence as comfort until Nikki couldn't stand the silence any more and made her excuses -- though they made tentative plans to meet up for coffee later in the week.

Her eyelids grew heavy as she watched as the sun’s lower edge approach the horizon, setting the ocean afire. When she found herself beginning to nod off, despite the cooling summer evening air, Nicolette stamped out her cigarette -- one of many that afternoon -- and stood.

She couldn’t help checking her phone, hoping against hope that Daniel would call her, perhaps to soften his parting words.

Nothing.

No messages.

From anyone.

She wasn’t surprised, but couldn’t help her disappointment. With a sigh, she turned and went inside.

Maybe tonight she’d be able to catch up on some of the sleep she’d been missing; tomorrow she needed to start planning her next move.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interlude

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-One: Father and Son

 

JARED Haverford jogged through the tamed wilderness of Golden Gate Park in the early morning darkness. It was his favorite run, especially in the wee hours when it was largely deserted. The park's emptiness coupled with the simplicity and purity of his run -- the focus on his breath, on his beating heart, on the pounding of his feet on the pavement -- left room for little else. It helped him put aside the bustle of his life, his worries...his pain and disappointment. For a little while, at least.

Sometimes love just isn’t enough, he thought, his sadness and frustration rising. He refocused on his breathing, struggling to push the unwelcome feelings aside.

inhale, pound, pound, pound, exhale, pound, pound

Jared had always liked the predawn stillness. The expectant hush that filled the world as it waited in breathless anticipation of the new day allowed him to feel as though he was part of that rebirth. He sometimes felt as though the silence thinned the barrier between him and whatever was on the Other Side. He didn’t exactly believe in God, but his place in the universe always seemed closest to revealing itself while the world stood poised to begin anew.

I could use a little help here, he thought, hoping the thought might reach the Other Side while the barrier was at its thinnest. He shook his head in frustration, pushing his feelings into the background.

inhale, pound, pound, pound, exhale, pound, pound

He checked his watch -- 05:41. He was expected at the firm to help with a deposition by 08:00. He checked his breathing as he ran, turning down a small side path that passed into deeper shadow as it circled Stow Lake. He would do two, maybe three laps before heading back out. He smiled as he met another jogger coming the other way, a perky blonde with a small puffball dog at her side. His smile widening at its enthusiastic, loopy expression. The woman smiled back when their eyes met. She seemed to follow the reverse course he preferred, sometimes crossing paths with him two or three times in a single run.

He briefly considered changing direction for next morning's jog to encourage a meeting, but immediately gave up on the idea; being unfaithful to Penelope -- even in thought -- hurt too much. He had separated from his wife and daughter not two months ago; he still had hope for reconciliation...but if he was being honest, that hope was beginning to fade.

inhale, pound, pound, pound, exhale, pound, pound

The love was still there, he was sure of it, but somehow they just hadn't been able to make things work; their last year together -- their previous year together , he chided himself -- had been one long string of misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and arguments that seemed to grow meaner with every iteration. Their last fight had nearly escalated to physical violence before Marnie's crying had brought them both back to their senses. He suspected that was the reason Penny had decided to move out, to the East Bay, bringing little Marnie with her to the little Oakland house she'd found on Craigslist.

inhale, pound, pound, pound, exhale, pound, pound

He had offered to rent it for her, hoping that perhaps it would force them into contact after a little time apart, had gotten a little distance and perspective, perhaps let some of the poisonous emotion drain. God knows, after the promotion he'd gotten, he could afford it. For a little while, at any rate. She had reluctantly agreed, perhaps feeling the same way. He hoped so -- the emptiness of their dream home in the Sunset was slowly driving him mad.

Sometimes, love just isn’t enough, he thought again, struggling with the tide of despair as it reached a new high-water mark.

inhale, pound, pound,

“It rarely is.” The voice came from the darkness ahead of him, breaking into his circling thoughts.

He looked up to see a man standing under a tree by the path, watching him, the light reflecting strangely in his eyes. He stumbled to a stop as the man smiled -- something more sensed than seen in the shadows.

Jared frowned as the man stepped forward into the streetlight, his smile widening. Though he looked plain -- a dark pea coat was his only memorable feature -- Jared took an involuntary step backward, his already pounding heart racing with fear.

“Who…”

Jared yelled in surprise as the man abruptly lunged, his fists coming up a second too late. He screamed in horror as he felt teeth in his neck, smelled blood, felt his flesh tearing with ripping red agony accompanied by with a series of muted, meaty pops that he felt more than heard.

He’s biting me!, he thought through a haze of unreality as he struggled to get the man off, shoving helplessly at his chest. He would have laughed at the absurdity of the situation if the smell of rot and old blood -- and fresh blood -- hadn't been so rank in his nostrils as he felt the man's jaw moving against his chin and throat.

He screamed as the pain abruptly drove deeper, sizzling from his fingertips to the back of his head, as though he’d touched a live wire, his hand jerking spasmodically. He tried to pull away, horrified as the man’s teeth embedded in his flesh checked his movement. Jared stumbled, still trying to push the man away as he felt warmth running down his belly, down his thighs. He still couldn’t believe this was happening to him! He screamed again as he was knocked roughly onto his back, his head bouncing off the dirt of the path. He saw a flash of white, was momentarily stunned at the blow to the back of his head.

He was dimly aware of being dragged more deeply into the shadows. The canopy of the trees formed a darker blackness against the faint hint of grey in the sky, the darkling pattern spinning and twisting as his head bumped along. A vision of Marlene abruptly filled his sight, Marlene’s infectious giggle echoing around him as he lay stunned; the image was so strong he tried to sit up, reaching for her, suddenly wondering if he’d over slept. The pain in his neck and shoulder drove him back down, the darkness of the deeper shadows making him dizzy.

The movement abruptly stopped, the cold lethargy in his extremities painful -- but nothing compared to his throat. He tried to close his mouth, suddenly terrified bugs from the overhanging foliage might drop into it, but the muscles didn't respond, tearing pain racing up down the side of his face and neck. A face appeared over his, smeared with blood. For one instant, his vision cleared as though some dark fog was briefly blown apart, the man's features rippling in a smoky heat-haze.

Jared screamed in horror at the rotting, grinning visage, the surge of adrenaline clearing the shock-induced cobwebs from his mind. He screamed again when the man bared his bloody fangs, Jared's eyes falling on the ragged bits of flesh -- his flesh -- stuck between the man's teeth. He kept on screaming as the man leaned over him, his vision filling with white serrated edges...

Tobias stood back from the trail amongst the trees, wrapping the shadows tightly about himself; it was a Talent discovered shortly after his Return, Glamour borne of instinct and need, granted indirectly from his Father…his creator.

Worry briefly scuttled across the surface of his thoughts as he felt the strengthening pull of his Father’s will. Movement down the trail drew his attention, distracting him. His allowed his worry to be submerged by his hunger, his need giving strength to his resistance.

Father can wait until after I feed, he thought distractedly. Dimly, through the haze of his hunger, he knew this line of thinking was fallacious, but the thought was quickly buried when the jogger rounded the bend, her ponytail swaying as she ran. He watched as the petite blonde jogged past, her little white dog looking apprehensively at him. Animals sometimes pierced the shadows he pulled around himself, perhaps intuitively sensing his predatory malice, reacting to instincts that had become atavistic in his preferred prey. He released the shadows just enough to meet the pathetic little dog’s eyes, amused at its ensuing panic as it scrambled to escape, imprisoned by the leash. He gloated at the prospect of holding it in his hands, unable to escape, feeling its heart racing with fear…twisting it until it squealed, breaking its bones one by one until it expired.

Run! Run little doggie!, he thought, struggling not to laugh as its terror.

His gaze transferred to the girl as she stopped by the trees, watching as she bent over, hands on her thighs. His gaze slid over her legs and hips, the black leggings she wore emphasizing her curves. Seemingly of its own volition, his hand crept down, sliding behind the waistband of his sweats. A slow rhythmic movement began as he listened to her reassuring murmuring, his unsuspected proximity and her vulnerability adding to his hunger, his need.

He began salivating when she knelt, admonishing the little dog as it yipped, helplessly prisoned by its leash; soon he would feed. He hesitated a moment longer, teasing himself, basking in anticipation as he delayed his gratification, knowing it would be that much sweeter when he finally took her. He began stroking more quickly, his gaze fixating on the pulsing in her throat, his arousal and hunger eliding into a single predatory instinct.

Any second now!, he thought, wrapping the shadows more tightly about himself as he moved forward. He debated briefly whether he would feed first or play first; though he preferred to play first (his stroking became more insistent) lately it seemed so hard to stop feeding once he started. The smell of her sweat began hazing his thoughts, her heartbeat beneath her rasping breath making it difficult to think. He bared his fangs as he realized he was close to climaxing, his eyes flaring orange in the shadows. The little dog screamed in terror.

He stepped forward, intent on his prey.

No.

The thought came into his mind, cutting through his arousal and hunger, bringing him up short as though he’d run to the end of a steel leash.

Archangel…Father! , he thought, the recognition sending a wave of terror through him, his arousal wilting in his hand -- though his hunger raged unabated. His muscles quivered as he strained against the imperative, a cold hand on his shoulder giving the imperative strength, No, my son. Not this one.

Tobias watched as the girl straightened, throwing one last uneasy glance toward the shadows under the tree where he stood -- right at him without seeing him -- before turning away, the little dog pulling its leash taut as she eased back into her jog. He made an inarticulate frustrated noise in his throat as his intended prey escaped. The scent of old blood, stale and cold filled the air as his creator whispered in his ear, "I have been seeking you, Tobias. You've been resisting my call; you've forced me to come to you."

Tobias shuddered at the sad reproof he heard in his creator’s voice, the cold flesh of Archangel’s hand on the side of his neck eliciting an involuntary flinch.

“Father,” he started, hating the whimper he heard in his voice. He felt the cold, rough skin of Archangel’s hand slide up the side of his neck as his front pressing intimately against Tobias’ back. Tobias whimpered as Archangel’s finger rested lightly on the lobe of his right ear, his nail tracing a circle around the opening.

“Wayward children must be punished, else they don’t mind their elders,” he hissed, the smell of old blood strengthening as the breath from his cold lungs caressed Tobias’ ear.

“Father!,” he repeated, desperation making his throat tight as a small trickle of blood ran over his earlobe, “I’m sorry—”

He was interrupted by the slow, deliberate movement of Archangel’s finger into his ear, hissing in pain as the finger forced its way deeper, the nail tearing sensitive flesh until it pressed against his eardrum, the pressure sending a flash of sparkles across his vision. Tobias’ every muscle strained against his father’s prisoning will, but he was bound as firmly as the little dog had been.

“Father! I’m sorry! I—”

His back arched as the nail began sawing gently against his eardrum, the percussive friction sounding like a cottony jackhammer, the pressure excruciating over the rasping tearing sound that filled his mind.

“Go on,” Archangel said, his voice filled with patient reproof.

“I didn’t resist! I was going to answer it after—”

He felt his eardrum shred with a series of percussive pops, his back arching as a high pitched whistle of agony escaped the locked muscles of his throat. The trickle of blood increased, slicking his ear canal, every lost drop feeling as though he was being pulled inside out, the terrible void of loss felt all the way to his toes, the loss only serving to add to his hunger even as the agony made him want to scream.

“After?” Archangel prompted.

“I fed! Just this one feed!” Tobias panted.

He heard -- felt! -- the crackle of bones as his father's finger deliberately crushed the bones in his middle ear as he tried to squirm his head away, his high pitched, agonized squeal disturbing something in the undergrowth nearby, the brush rustling as it fled. He tried to shriek an apology, begged him to stop as he squirmed to escape his creator's will. His vision went white with pain, his hands spasmodically drumming against his thighs. If he had still been human, he likely would have passed out.

He squealed in red agony as the finger hooked into his ear jerked his head down and to the side. He dropped to his knees, feeling the finger squirming painfully in his skull.

He felt Archangel’s breath against the side of his neck, as his other hand crept around the side of Tobias’ head, his cold, papery skin sliding against his cheek until he felt a finger resting roughly against his eyelid, a trickle of blood running like a tear streak down his cheek.

“Please!” he squealed as the pressure increased, a red and white kaleidoscope blossoming across his vision.

Archangel’s voice was strangely muted, “Will you disobey my call again, my son?”

Tobias squirmed against the grinding agony in his ear as the finger mercilessly augured deeper, against the tearing pressure against his eye as his father’s hands held his head in place.

“NO! NO! NO I NEVER!” he bawled incoherently, his agonized whimper almost a scream, tears running freely down his cheeks.

Abruptly Archangel withdrew, the steel cage of his will vanishing. Tobias collapsed to the damp soil underfoot, both hands clapping against his injured ear as he wept. Archangel stood over his favorite son, gently sucking on his bloodied fingertip, studying his get contemplatively.

Spare the rod, spoil the child, he thought sadly, listening to Tobias’ bubbling agony.

He knelt, sadness filling his face. Tobias flinched as he gently cupped his child’s cheek, “Come my son, we have work to do.”

Tobias scrambled frantically to his knees as Archangel pulled something from his jacket pocket. The smell of warm blood filled the air, inducing Tobias to salivate despite his fear and agony. Archangel held out a wallet which Tobias reluctantly took, drawn by the scent of fresh blood. Archangel smiled at him encouragingly, like a parent reassuring a frightened child.

Tobias flipped open the expensive leather billfold, studying the drivers license, seeing a man with dark brown hair and dark eyes staring back him. Opposite the driver’s license, he saw a dark haired woman smiling, her dark grey eyes captivating, his suffering momentarily forgotten as studied the picture. He flipped through the photos in the plastic insert, his breath hitching as he paused over a photo of a deliriously smiling girl. She was perhaps four years old, dressed in a bright green Ninja Turtle onesie, sitting amidst the wrack and ruin of opened presents, a Christmas tree twinkling merrily in the background. He lightly touched the photograph, eyes wide, his shaking finger leaving a faint film of blood as he gently traced her features. His eyes drifted upward as he flipped back to the woman’s photo in its clear plastic fold, noting a small slip of paper behind the photo, a faint hint of blood soaking into the exposed edge. He pulled the slip of paper loose, noting the spidery black writing: Penny, 431 Tinsel Drive.

He looked up at Archangel questioningly, flinching slightly at his creator's luminous yellow eyes as a small smile played about the corners of his mouth, "Yes, my son -- a gift from me. Keep the wallet, it might help you. Feed! Satisfy your need! Then seek me out."

A brief expectant silence passed between them as Tobias stared at his master. Even as the jagged agony in his head began to reassert itself, he noted tension in his creator’s shoulders, a barely contained glee surging beneath his surface calm. Abruptly Tobias’ eyes widened as understanding penetrated the haze of hunger and pain clouding his thoughts.

“You’ve found her!” he said, wonder filling his voice.

Archangel smiled, his expression becoming predatory, Tobias’ hunger reflected in his eyes, “Yes,” he said simply. “Dispose of the bodies when you’re done, then burn the house.”

“Yes, Father,” Tobias breathed.

Archangel smiled, licking his fangs, tasting his own blood, “But first, we must dine together, my son. We must hold back the beast a little longer.”

His smile widened at Tobias’ surprised expression, “There should still be a little meat left on the bone…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tower

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Two: Catalyst

 

NICOLETTE stood behind the podium at Harry’s, idly waiting for customers. Wednesdays were often slower, but this Wednesday there had been an unexpected rush of business just after she’d arrived. Chris had insisted that it was summer bringing a slight uptick in tourist traffic coupled with longer daylight hours.

Seems like a reasonable explanation, she thought with a mental shrug. She didn’t mind the extra business; she found shifts with long periods of idle waiting to be tortuous, forcing her to keep busy with odd jobs or risk going insane with boredom. She sighed as she briefly scanned the restaurant, checking to see if anything was amiss. Seeing nothing, she leaned on her elbows, her mind drifting back over the long, busy day while she waited. Wednesday was the busiest day of her week, starting at 4am so she could arrive on time for the opening shift at Coffee Beach. It wasn’t the busiest shift, but after several weeks she was starting to get regulars -- ‘Erica’ to most of them, ‘Angel’ to a small knowing handful.

Almost immediately after her shift at Coffee Beach, It would be nice to drop one of her jobs, but she was determined to save as much money as she could for the next step in her plan, and after just finishing three and half years at the CIW, she wasn’t ready to give up her privacy and look for roommates to move in with. Besides, she thought with another sigh, holding down all three jobs filled her time, leaving her little time or energy to think about (Daniel) everything else that was going on. The weekend had been a whirlwind -- maybe more like a tornado , she thought ruefully -- and she felt as though she was still picking up the pieces.

She flexed her hands unconsciously, wondering if she needed the bandages at this point. She had expected to feel her injuries -- the antenna and Racer’s bite -- for several days to come, but they both seemed to be healing much more quickly than she’d expected. At least the white lace gauntlets she was wearing as an accent to her dress partially concealed the bandages on her hands.

She straightened quickly as the door opened, admitting Mr. Genaro and Mrs. Shah -- regulars that worked a small law practice nearby. Pooja smiled warmly as they greeted her. Nicolette was surprised when Mr. Genaro grudgingly smiled as well. Their upbeat mood cleared her gloom enough to pique her interest, “You guys seem really happy! Did something good happen?”

Mr. Genaro grinned as he scooted into the booth, “We received news from one the affairs that we’ve been working on.”

Pooja laughed, “It’ll bring a little more money into the business, that’s for sure. We can’t really talk about it yet, but...” She shrugged apologetically, but nevertheless Nicolette felt her spirits lift. Nicolette suspected they’d started eating there more frequently after Nicolette took the job as hostess -- she knew they were sometimes prickly, and she went out of her way to make sure they were happy. She led them to a booth in Dana's section -- Dana never seemed to get rattled, even when Mr. Genaro was in an especially difficult mood.

She turned, heading back to the bar to put in their drink orders, simultaneously flagging down one of the servers so they’d know she’d seated “The Lawyers”.

She rounded the podium on her way to the bar and froze.

Tommy sat with his back to the bar, arms stretched out to either side, his red ball cap standing out with its white embroidered eagle. He was the epitome of indolent nonchalance, relaxing on a barstool with his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. He was expressionless, but the moment they made eye contact, a small smile touched his lips. Without breaking eye-contact, he casually leaned to one side and picked up the drink sitting on the bar behind him, his hand unerringly finding the glass of amber colored liquid.

Nicolette frowned in puzzlement as he raised his glass to her before taking a sip. Her heart gave a little skip as she glanced up and down the bar, instinctively looking for Dane or Daniel. When it became clear that neither of them had joined Tommy, her heart sank with disappointment. She struggled against the sudden hope that maybe Tommy was there to deliver a message from Daniel.

As though he wouldn’t just text it himself!, she thought, annoyed.

“Tommy. How are you?” She tried to sound welcoming and enthusiastic, but could only summon a wan smile.

Tommy was unfazed by her lack of enthusiasm, his smile widening, “Nicolette.” He nodded at her solemnly, then lapsed into silence.

Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, Nicolette resisted the urge to start filing the silence. After a long moment, she finally broke down, asking, “Soo. What brings you here? I don’t see Dane or…”

She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

His grin widened as he nodded at her, “Speak with you, actually.”

She took an involuntary step backward, surprised, “Me? What for?”

His smile became more pronounced as he nodded toward the front of the restaurant where a group of locals had entered, “Looks like you have customers.”

She shot him an irritated glare, then headed to the podium, pausing just long enough to give The Lawyers’ drink order to Chris.

*

Tommy’s presence was like a constant pressure on the back of her neck -- not painful, but too persistent to ignore. He wasn’t staring at her or watching her every move, but he didn’t move from the bar, his red ball cap acting like a beacon, reminding her he was there every time she started to forget. She glanced at the clock mounted on the podium, noting that it was almost 9pm -- he’d been sitting at the bar for at least half an hour. At some point, he had turned around to stare at the monitor mounted over the bar, watching a hockey game, but some instinct -- something about the way he didn’t react to the game at all -- suggested that he couldn’t care less about the game, that he was patiently biding his time.

Earlier, she had intercepted Chris on his way back from the men’s to ask him about Tommy. He had glanced over the top of her head (Chris was nearly 6’ 2”, after all) then looked back down at her. By Chris’ reckoning, Tommy had been sitting at the bar for almost an hour.

“Are you sure?” she’d asked anxiously, “Are you sure you’ve got the time right? I didn’t notice him at all until half an hour ago.”

Chris shrugged, favoring her with a crooked smile, “What, is he an ex or something? Is he stalking you?”

She glanced over her shoulder at Tommy’s back as he turned the glass of whiskey in his hands, the closest to a nervous or impatient gesture she’d seen him make that night.

Are you stalking me, Tommy?, she wondered, And if so, why?

She shook her head, genuinely puzzled at her reactions, Good Lord, Nikki, she scolded herself, it’s just Tommy! Tommy is harmless! Hell, he probably saved your life the other night at the club!

She started as Chris cut into her thoughts, a worried frown crossing his expression, “Is everything okay? You look upset. I was just joking about the stalking thing, but If it’s really a problem—“

She interrupted him, “Has he said anything to you? Anything at all?”

He glanced over her head again, then shook his head, “He’s been quiet, mostly just watching the game. He’s ordered a couple of whiskeys, but he’s been nursing that second one for most of the last half hour or so. He’s been ordering the good stuff, tipping well. He hasn’t mentioned you or anything.”

She nodded slowly, “Okay. It’s cool, I think, but let me know if he starts asking questions.”

“What’s going on, Nikki? You’re acting spooked.”

Nicolette shook her head, forcing a reassuring smile as she patted his biceps, “It’s nothing, Chris. Tommy’s a good guy, but sometimes he just” scares me “puzzles me a little bit. I’ve known him since we were kids.”

His concerned frown faded slightly, be she could see that he was unmollified, poorly concealing his resentment that an unwelcome and possibly dangerous element had entered his peaceful, well-run domain.

“I can kick him out, if you want.”

She frowned thoughtfully; despite Tommy’s unassuming, slightly geeky demeanor, some intuition filled her with doubt that Chris could make Tommy do anything he wasn’t already going to do. She realized with surprise that Chris was prepared to follow through on his offer.

I wonder if Chris knows about my previous career, she thought, surprised at his unexpected protectiveness.

She shook the thought off, alarmed as his demeanor subtly changed, “No Chris, it’s okay. Leave it -- I’ll handle him later, after my shift.”

He nodded, “You going to call Wreck-It Ralph?”

She frowned, detecting the derogatory note in his voice. After a long, uncomfortable moment, a surprised, puzzled smile stole across Chris’s features, “Wreck-It Ralph? The Pixar movie? A video game character that breaks things?”

Wreck-It Ralph? Must have been something I missed while I was away, she thought with a mental sigh. It sometimes felt as though she was perpetually stuck in the shadow of Culture Lag Mountain after years in prison.

She couldn’t keep a touch of asperity from her voice when she responded, “His name is Daniel. And yeah, I’m going to call him since he’s close friends with Tommy -- he probably knows why Tommy is here.”

Chris shrugged, “Let me know if I can do anything, then. I have to get back to the bar before Solis notices. Don’t want to get another one of his BS lectures on responsibility or whatever. I get enough of that from my dad.”

Nicolette headed back to the podium, pulling her phone out of the slot near the top (automatically catching the pen as it rolled free, seemingly of its own volition). She hesitated for a long time as she considered whether she wanted to go through with it, or if she was just grasping at any pathetic excuse to call Daniel.

 

Daniel reclined on his living room couch, aimlessly channel surfing as he absently sipped a beer. He had just finished a double shift, but hadn’t fully transitioned out of work mode, his mind and body still tense. It sometimes took him several hours to relax if the shift had been exceptionally busy or stressful. Doubles generally hit him even harder, and he tried to avoid them when could -- but after the disastrous conversation with Nicolette -- coupled with events the Club -- the long hours gave him a welcome distraction.

Their disastrous conversation still filled him with a kind of baffled, hurt anger. Distancing himself from her seemed like the right decision, that her return wasn’t as propitious as he had allowed himself to hope…but there was a nagging voice in the back of his mind that insisted he wasn’t seeing the whole picture, that he was sitting in the trough between the waves, caught between his own feelings and something he couldn’t see, casting obscuring shadows over everything. Part of him wanted to latch onto that nagging voice, to embrace the hope it implicitly offered, but that hopeful little voice had brought him too much disappointment and pain to be trusted. He struggled to shut his mind against its persistent little whisper.

And yet…

And yet, the little voice insisted that Nikki-from-seven-years-ago had been unable to pass a dog without petting it or see a stray cat without trying to make friends with it -- and succeeding more often than he would have believed if he hadn’t seen it himself!

Could something so fundamental to a person’s personality be erased?, he wondered.

Nikki’s story seemed to suggest that it could…but even in his most cynical moments, that little voice rose up, echoing some of Shelly’s words.

He jumped when his phone buzzed, his eyebrows rising in surprise as he read the message from Nikki: Tommy is here at H’s. It’s weirding me out. Any idea why?

Daniel frowned, annoyed at his heart’s little skip of excitement when he saw the sender. He quashed it with a snarl, resenting her intrusion into his reverie.

No, he typed, Did you ask him?

He waited, struggling with his conflicting emotions. Her response was quick: Yes. Said he wanted to talk. This isn’t you?

His frown deepened, Tommy…what are you up to? You know I’m not on great terms with her. Now I find out you’re over there chatting her up when I’m not around?

Daniel shook his head, puzzlement and unease beginning to coalesce as he tried to guess what Tommy was doing there.

Harry’s is only 5 minutes away, maybe less, the little voice asserted, what could it hurt to go and see for yourself? She sounds pretty upset…

“I can’t protect you,” he said disgustedly to his phone.

He tossed it aside, watching it bounce on the sofa cushion next to him. He turned back to the television, determined to watch the game and put thoughts of Nikki and Tommy out of his mind. Right now, he just wanted to unwind with some hockey, a couple of beers, then bed. He had all day tomorrow and most of the next to relax and figure out what his next move should be. He sat back, trying to concentrate on the game. He gave up during a commercial break, tilting his head back, staring at the ceiling.

“I can’t protect you,” he repeated, sadness and a sense of failure bubbling from old wounds in the back of his mind as he thought about

 

the eucalyptus grove, he thought. That was one of her favorite places to go when she was feeling out of sorts.

[_ He walked around the track, squeezing through the hole in the fence. It was a shortcut off the school grounds that he and Nicolette sometimes used -- sort of their little secret. It didn't significantly shorten their walk home, but it allowed them a brief spell of privacy after school. He frowned, lost in thought as he walked along the chainlink fence, following it as it curved round the track. Since they'd walked to school that morning, she'd seemed depressed and withdrawn, her mood evoking a deep uneasiness in him. He approached the small grove of trees, absently replaying their interactions throughout the day, struggling to find a common theme, trying to quash the dark whispering little voice in the back of his mind. He was determined not to listen to it, to let it ruin his day. _]

He didn’t see her at first, the stand of trees casting deep shadows under the overcast late afternoon sky, his uneasiness briefly sliding into worry when he didn’t see her amongst the trees. But a moment later he sighed in relief at a flash of blue, her hoodie catching the light from a break in the branches overhead.

He approached cautiously, watching as she paced slowly through the clearing, her brows drawn together. For a moment, he debated whether she’d want company, whether it might be better to walk away and leave her alone with her thoughts. As he watched her pacing, something in her body language seemed troubled, hurting. He sensed her need, though he couldn’t have articulated it even if he’d thought to try; leaving her in that state her was unthinkable.

“Nikki!” he called softly, startling her out of her reverie, her hand flying to her chest in surprise, “I didn’t see you out front, so I assumed you were taking the short cut.”

She nodded dully, but didn’t immediately answer. They hugged perfunctorily, but she stepped away sooner than he’d have liked; he liked the way she felt in his arms, but he knew that sometimes she didn’t want to be touched. It didn’t help that their disastrous outing up into the hills was still fresh, the wounds inflicted still raw.

“I’ve been trying to catch up to you all day,” he continued. He hesitated as he studied her out of the corner of his eye, momentarily nonplussed as he tried to guess the bent of her thoughts and realized that he couldn’t. She walked slowly, wincing uncomfortably as she opened and closed her hands.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, breathing in the strong herbal scent of the eucalyptus trees.

“I spoke with Mrs. Chandler today; I think I’m going to apply to USC and UCLA. I know you were going to apply to UCLA as well. When you get there, maybe…” he hesitated, suddenly overcome with shyness as he stared fixedly at the other end of the grove ahead of them, “maybe we can move in together.”

She smiled, “Maybe we can.”

“We’ll both have to get in,” she added.

He frowned, her voice sounding slightly breathless as she spoke, his earlier nameless unease resurgent.

What if she’s not applying to any West Coast schools?, the dark little voice whispered, what if she’s only applies to East Coast schools?

He wondered if she’d applied to Brown University.

Like her mother, the dark little voice observed.

“That’s ridiculous!” he murmured under his breath, then abruptly blushed as she glanced at him quizzically.

He smiled, “Talking to myself. I must have missed my meds today.”

She smiled perfunctorily at their in-joke, but let the moment pass.

[_ He cleared his throat, struggling to pick up his earlier thread. "It'll be really great -- to finally get away from all this," he gestured expansively around them, but secretly they both knew what he really meant. She hooked her arm through his, letting his words wash over her as he began to enthuse about college plans, about life after Half Moon Bay...about life together. As he spoke, her gait slowed, her hand coming to rest on her abdomen. He frowned when she stopped, bending at the waist as she unlinked, her hands clutching at her knees until her fingers turned white. _]

She was panting, a clammy sweat breaking out on her forehead, worry and fear creeping into his voice as he watched her helplessly, “Nikki? Are you okay? What’s going on, babe?”

He could see her pulse racing as veins began to stand up on her temples and neck. She sank slowly to her knees as she gasped desperately for air, “I can’t…Daniel, I can’t…”

Daniel knelt next her, his hand rubbing her back in reassuring circles, feeling helpless panic being to rise as tears spilled down her cheeks, “Nikki, talk to me. Are you okay? What’s…”

[_ He forced himself to calm down, to forcibly push his panic into the background. He felt it pressing against mind as he briefly considered his options, even as the clamminess of her skin disturbed him. A cold part of his mind -- a part rarely accessed -- began to make a list of things he could do. He paused, listening, looking like the RCA dog, even as his fear stormed around the periphery of his thoughts. _]

“Do you need 9-1-1?” he asked, forcing deliberate calm into his voice as he pulled his hand off her knee to reach for his cell. He grunted in surprise when she grabbed his hand, holding onto it with a crushing grip. He stared at her, watching her gasp for breath, the veins in her neck and forehead standing out, pulsing. His fear and frustration roared through him, spinning up on her distress.

He snarled wordlessly, still stroking her back reassuringly while she crushed his other hand, the tendons in his hand creaking. Her eyes rolled sideways, seeing his concerned expression, seeing his frustration and anger at his own helplessness. As their eyes met, something clicked in his mind, though he couldn’t articulate the thought until years later. He struggled to project calm as he began rubbing the back of her neck.

He stared into her eyes, forcing every ounce of love he could muster into voice, “Hey, it’s going to be okay. I’m here, Nikki; I’m here. We’re in the eucalyptus grove because you like the smell.”

He hoped the heat of his hand against the clammy skin at the back of her neck gave her a sensation to focus her attention away from her distress.

“Try and breathe with me,” he carefully enunciated, taking a deep, deliberate breath. Patiently, he drew a second breath, raising his eyebrows encouragingly, “smell the eucalyptus.”

She nodded, eyes still wide as she tried to force her lungs to cooperate, her brow furrowing as she focused on his voice, on the calming herbal scent permeating the air.

“I’ll take care of you, Nikki,” he promised, gently stroking the back of her neck, willing her to feel his love through the contact, “I’ll protect you,” he promised.

 

He sighed, his eyes tracing the cracks in the old paint on the ceiling of his apartment, the guilt like an old wound that he’d grown so used to, he could almost forget about it. He was surprised when a tear streaked down, the sensation bringing him back to the present. His last words to Nikki behind her apartment juxtaposing with his words at her panic attack in the eucalyptus grove.

New guilt, meet old guilt, he thought wryly.

The little voice insisted, Harry’s is just down the street…there and back again…take 20 minutes round trip…you won’t even miss the second period.

He tried to push the voice down, to focus on the game as he sipped his (warm) beer.

Abruptly, he gave up with a snarl. He retrieved his phone where it was threatening to slide between the sofa cushions and stood, heading toward the door of his apartment. It felt like he was making a mistake, that it would be way, way smarter to just let it go, to back off and let Nikki take care of her own damned problems.

But the nagging little voice coupled with some innate intuition demanded action. And she had texted him…not Shelly or Dane or anyone else she might still be friends with. And while he was still angry and betrayed…he was surprised to find he still couldn’t leave her in distress; it would bother him with worry all night if he didn’t at least do a little reconnaissance.

What could it hurt to check?, he thought.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Rubicon

 

NIKKI checked her phone, wondering if Daniel was going to respond. There had been a final burst of late diners, then things at Harry’s had settled. Her shift was almost over -- the clock reading close to 10 pm. A furtive glance over her shoulder revealed Tommy still sitting at the bar, patiently waiting. With a sigh, she pulled her phone out of its slot in the podium, heart sinking in disappointment when she saw Daniel hadn’t responded. Tommy glanced her way as she approached, smiling enigmatically at her from beneath his hat, “What’s doing?”

“I’ve been wondering the same thing about you, Tommy.”

His smile widened, “Heard you had a strange weekend -- ‘bout other weird things happening...as if the club wasn’t weird enough.”

He glanced down at the bandage on her right hand, concealed as it was by the white lace covering her arm almost to the elbow. He gave it a meaningful glance, then asked, “How’s the hand?”

Nicolette frowned, sensing some deeper meaning buried in his question, but unable to tease it out, “A lot better than I thought it would be, at this point.”

Tommy nodded, his expression thoughtful but unsurprised. His nonchalance made her nervous, giving rise to the inexplicable feeling that she was approaching some previously unsuspected rubicon. She fought the sudden absurd temptation to thrust her hand behind her back, as though halting the conversation would halt her headlong rush toward that dimly sensed precipice.

“Is your shift over, yet?”

Her gaze fell on the clock in the corner of the big screen, then reluctantly nodded, “Let me change and then you can explain why you’ve been surveilling me at my job.”

He grinned at her, completely unperturbed by the implicit accusation, “Done.”

 

Ten minutes later, she stepped out of the staff room into the restaurant, coming to a halt as she realized that Tommy had been joined by Daniel. After her last text had gone unanswered she thought he was going to ignore her. Their eyes met from across the restaurant, his brows lowering as he stared past Tommy’s shoulder. Grimly, she forced herself forward, feeling as though she had been summoned into the principal’s office. She was still dressed in the summery white and blue sheath dress she had found earlier in the week in a thrift store.

She had abandoned the sheer black cardigan, instead opting to put on her puffy pink jacket and a comfortable pair of sneakers. She approached the men at the bar, mildly surprised to see Chris chatting with Daniel and Tommy. She fought to suppress a sigh as she guessed they were all probably talking about sports -- a guess which was proven correct when she heard Chris mention the Sharks. An awkward, uncomfortable silence fell as she sidled up to them.

She felt a little malicious prickle in her mind as she watched them, deciding not to say anything, letting the silence draw out.

Chris, sensing the mood, discretely pulled back to the other end of the bar, pausing to flirt with a pair of middle aged women sipping martinis. Finally Daniel broke the silence, “You texted me; I’m here.”

Inwardly, he winced, annoyed at himself for sounding so overtly hostile and challenging as he watched her stiffen. She hesitated, then pointedly spoke to Tommy, “You said you’d wanted to speak with me?”

She was aware of a little smile tugging at the corner of his mouth before he finally nodded, “Yeah. It’s good that Daniel’s here, too. Let’s step outside.”

Nicolette waved to Chris, offering him a reassuring smile as his eyebrows rose in an exaggerated manner, implicitly asking, “Everything okay?”

At her answering smile and offhanded dismissive gesture, he reluctantly nodded then returned to his work, following her with one last puzzled glance.

 

Nikki, Daniel, and Tommy stood on the sidewalk half a block down the street from Harry’s. Nikki was relieved they were willing to move away from her place of business, reluctant to risk a loud argument which she’d have to explain to Mr. Solis at her next shift. He was already looking for excuses to fire her or punish her in an effort to make her quit, no need to make it easier for him. The night had turned chilly, a strong breeze coming in off the ocean. For once, the sky was almost clear, the breeze helping to keep the coastal fog at bay. She shivered slightly in her jacket, wishing she’d brought jeans or a warm pair of sweat pants.

She turned to face Tommy, conspicuously ignoring Daniel, though she couldn’t help watching him out of the corner of her eye, “So -- what brings you to Harry’s, Tommy? You’ve been waiting there for almost two hours, but haven’t told me anything other than ‘we should talk’. So...talk.”

He grinned, aware that the exposition was aimed at Daniel, “I was hoping Daniel would stop by.”

She snorted in irritation, “If you wanted him here, why didn’t you just call him?”

The corners of Tommy’s eyes crinkled with amusement, “He’d have just blown me off.”

Daniel suppressed his annoyance. He was annoyed partially because Tommy had guessed Daniel’s mood, deducing that Daniel would have likely blown off anything but a 911 page, but partly because he felt as though Tommy had played them both a little bit.

Nikki gave no sign of sharing Daniel’s annoyance, though he could tell by the set of her shoulders that she was fighting hard for patience, “Well?”

Tommy nodded, refocusing on Nikki as he explained, “I’ve heard about your strange weekend, about the shelter and some other things I’ve heard in a roundabout way.”

He hesitated, but Nikki schooled her expression to stillness, patiently waiting him out. Concern momentarily overpowered Daniel’s annoyance as he turned to Nicolette, troubled, “Something happened at the shelter…?”

Nicolette ignored him, never taking her eyes off Tommy. He said, “I heard from a friend of mine about some of the things that have been going on. I know you don’t have any reason to trust me, Nikki, but…can you do something brave for me?”

Her brow furrowed in puzzlement. This was a Tommy she didn’t recognize at all; over the years she had grown accustomed to his laconic nature, preferring silence when he could get away with it, monosyllabic responses when he couldn’t. She was aware of his intelligence, having observed his ability to completely derail an argument or a train of thought with a perfectly timed one or two word jab, using context and delivery like a sword thrust into someone’s rhetorical vitals. Hearing him give such a relatively lengthy explanation, coupled with his hesitancy left Nikki completely off balance.

He’s almost pleading with me, she thought, studying his expression.

Daniel answered almost immediately, “Not a chance, Tommy. Not without some—“

“What do you want me to do?”

Daniel rounded on Nicolette, surprise etched across his features, “Nikki—“

“Can’t explain now,” Tommy cut in, “don’t want to bias you.”

Something in his tone sounded apologetic to Daniel. Tommy had been a loyal friend over the years, but he wasn’t one given to making apologies or other expressions of regret. For all his laconic demeanor, Daniel had generally found Tommy to think several moves ahead as a matter of course; sometimes it could be a little scary when Daniel reviewed some of their conversations, how earlier conversations often primed later ones without ever giving Daniel the sense of being led. While having him at your side when things got dodgy was a huge comfort, he could sometimes be unnerving as Hell despite his unwavering loyalty.

Daniel glanced at Nikki, his annoyance with her resurgent as she studiously ignored him, pointedly focusing entirely on Tommy. He realized part of her willingness to trust Tommy at face value was partly a jab aimed at him, though his instincts warned him her injured spite was making her reckless.

Fair enough, he thought, maybe I deserve some of it. But…

Tommy nodded back up the street, “My jeep.”

Nikki nodded, worry briefly crossing her countenance as she hugged herself, turning to follow in Tommy’s wake. Fighting to suppress a snarl, Daniel called after them, “Hey. Hey! If we’re going to do this…whatever it is,” he added, his emphasis an implied rebuke aimed at Tommy, “let’s take my truck. At least it’ll be warmer than that sad, ventilated World War II era antique of yours.”

Tommy turned, smirking, “Good plan.”

Is that what you were angling for?, he wondered.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Four: Something Brave

 

“IS this going to be a problem for you?”

Nicolette turned away from the backseat passenger window at his question, pulling her gaze away from the night time landscape. She had been watching the lighted marquees and more distant suburban lights gradually shift to an urban lightscape as they approached the city, the lightless suburban terrain gradually eliding into industrial marquees and denser nets of lights cast over the crown of the hills. She struggled with her nervousness, knowing the Medical Examiner's office waited for them at the end of the drive. Tommy had casually informed Daniel of their destination once the truck began its long climb over the mountains. She had been unpleasantly surprised at this revelation, but felt trapped; she had already agreed to ‘do something brave’, and felt as though backing out now would leave her looking and feeling like a coward. But underneath the cold fear and trepidation ran a warm current of tense excitement, the conflicting emotions momentarily distracting her from her worries about Daniel. Tommy hadn’t added much aside from their intended destination, but the thought of maybe getting some answers -- or at least some clarity -- concerning recent events left her feeling giddy with hope that there might be some logical explanation for all the weirdness.

Hiding unacknowledged on the periphery of her thoughts was the specter of insanity -- that the rotting dead man she’d seen at Coffee Beach, the strange dreams, the monsters at the club and driving the car were all manifestations of her overwrought emotions and guilt. She had hoped she and Daniel might be able to put their heads together and work through the recent strangeness, perhaps finding reassurance that they weren’t alone with their fears.

But recent events had made that sharing…well…unlikely. So here she was, riding in Daniel’s truck with Tommy leading them to God-knows-what at the Medical Examiner’s office in the city in pursuit of answers. She struggled with her resentment toward Daniel, that if it weren’t for his…

His what, Nikki?, she thought, with self-directed vitriol. His ‘intolerance for thieves’? His unwillingness to ‘fraternize with violent ex-felons’? I am walking probable cause if we get pulled over, after all. Who in their right mind would willingly accept that into their life?

“Nikki?” he prompted as the silence drew out.

She shook her head in response to his question, then turned back to the window, unwilling to meet his eyes in the rearview mirror, her bitter resentment making a direct response nearly impossible. She knew he’d seen her shake her head, saw out of the corner of her eye as he directed his attention back to the road ahead, the muscles in his jaw tight. Feeling petty and childish, she forced herself to answer, “My parole lets me leave the county for a day or so without having to say anything to my P.O. I need permission to go more then 50 linear miles from Half Moon.” She couldn’t keep the challenging, defiant note from her voice.

I am what I am, she thought.

There was an uncomfortable silence as she studied her reflection in the darkened glass, seeing the tired circles under her eyes, the barely concealed sorrow pulling her expression down.

Man, I look so beaten. When did this happen to me? When did this expression became such a permanent part of me?

She was almost thankful when Tommy spoke, breaking into her thoughts, “Or what?”

Nicolette was momentarily confused, replaying the conversation.

“Or Garcia violates me and the Parole Board sends me back to prison for however long they think is fair. At least three months, more likely six.”

Daniel nodded absently; she could see from his reflection in the rear view mirror that he was troubled. She stared at his reflection in the mirror, silently daring him to say something disapproving or critical. She wasn’t sure what she would say, but she could feel her emotions coiling, ready to lash out. She was tired of being defensive, of feeling like she was cringing every time she opened her mouth. She had made mistakes and had paid for those mistakes; was still paying for them; likely would be paying for them for the rest of her life. Right now, at this moment, she hit the wall; she was tired of being punished.

We’ll see whatever it is that Tommy wants me to see; then I’ll just have to see what comes next.

She glared at Daniel in the mirror until he looked up and met her gaze. He sensed something of her mood, but decided there was nothing he could do about it right now. She was angry -- perhaps with some justification, he thought ruefully -- but there was nothing he could do about it; he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do anything about it, especially if they ended up going their separate ways after tonight.

Abruptly he snorted, shaking his head as he had a sudden memory Ryan smiling at him with his special condescending smile when he thought Daniel was being foolish, doubly so because he was letting his emotions make his decisions.

If you’re intending to let her go, he thought, transferring his mental snarl from his brother to himself, then what are you doing chauffeuring her at 11:30 in the evening to do God-only-knows-what, asshole? One text message, and here you are, common sense and prior self-determinations gone straight out the window.

Tommy swiveled his gaze away from the road, giving him a curious look, eyebrows raised in silent interrogative. Daniel shook his head, “It’s nothing. Just playing the fool.”

Tommy grunted with amusement, then turned back to the darkness rushing past the window, his smile fading.

That is the Tommy I’m used to, thought Nicolette -- laconic and ambiguous; she stubbornly refused to give him the gratification of labeling him ‘mysterious’. The silence was broken by the quiet clicking of the turn signal as Daniel exited the freeway, the road noise diminishing as he approached the end of the off ramp.

She found herself shaking; they were only minutes away from…something Tommy thought required bravery from Nicolette. From anybody else that might have been worrying; from Tommy it was terrifying.

 

Ten minutes later, they were walking through the somnolent streets in the shadow of the freeway just before it returned to ground-level, the traffic providing a constant backdrop of noise as it rushed past overhead, intermittently eclipsed by the roar of passing trucks. The Medical Examiner’s office was nestled in the belly of the county government building, a huge glass and concrete structure tucked into a curve of the freeway. Tommy had guided Daniel to a public parking area a block away, buried in the odd space directly under the raised freeway superstructure. Nicolette struggled against her instinct to duck every time a truck roared past overhead. Daniel had grumbled at the inconvenience, but intuitively picked up some of Tommy’s caution. He wasn’t sure what Tommy had in mind, but decided to trust him a little bit further.

The sky over the city was completely fogged over, the air feeling damp and chilly on Nicolette’s exposed skin. She wished she’d brought jeans or had pressed Tommy to stop by her apartment so she could change. They walked down a narrow side street, the county building looming over them, its brutalistic concrete and glass architecture dark and imposing. As they approached the building, coming at it from a service entrance next to a small sunken driveway, Daniel began to feel nervous, feeling a rising tension shared by the three of them. He glanced at Nikki, walking between Tommy and himself in her summery dress with the incongruously matched pink puffy jacket, her gaze abstracted.

She’s nervous, he thought, though objectively he couldn’t have explained how he knew. Can you blame her? She’s being escorted into the ME’s office. It’s not like there’s a huge range of things that Tommy is going to show us here.

He frowned, trying to remember if Animal Control shared space in the government building with the Medical Examiner’s office.

They crossed a small parking area clearly marked with “Authorized Personnel Only” signs. Nicolette huddled more deeply into her jacket as wicked nighttime breeze searched her jacket’s seams for egress. She glanced nervously at Tommy, but he seemed unperturbed as they crossed to a recessed parking bay, walking around a nondescript white van. They approached a blank steel door, broken only by a card reader and a menacing black plastic bubble mounted above the door. Daniel hesitated, “Tommy, the security camera could be a problem if we’re not authorized to be here,” cutting his eyes toward Nikki and back.

Tommy grinned as he gestured with his head toward the camera, “S’busted.”

Daniel started to reply, but hesitated as Nikki deftly maneuvered between them and approached the door, her jacket whispering as it brushed his sleeve. She reached out to touch the door lightly with her fingertips, the cold grey steel almost painfully cold under her fingertips, then looked back at him quizzically. She half turned to Tommy, noting the faintest hint of a frown, though he was otherwise expressionless.

“You don’t see it?”

Tommy tilted his head slightly to the side, looking past her to the steel door where her fingertips lightly rested against its dull gray surface. After a long pause, he shook his head, “No. What…?” he gestured with his chin toward the door.

“It…it looks like a red circle,” her fingertips numbing as she traced a circle on the door, centered on a point almost at her eye level about 12 inches across, “painted with some kind of silvery red paint.” She turned back, looking at them, her puzzlement beginning a slow slide into fear, aware of the tension creeping in her voice, raising its pitch slightly, “You don’t see anything at all? Nothing?”

Tommy glanced at the door again, concentrating for 10 long seconds before shaking his head. She thought she caught the faintest hint of speculation in his gaze.

I’m standing probably less than thirty feet away from all the people that died in this city today, she thought with a shudder. [_ I’m about to enter a government building illegally -- a trespass which could see my parole revoked and me back in jail; I’m still recovering from the failure of three quarters of the last two years worth of plans since Daniel...; I haven’t slept well in almost two weeks...it’s no wonder I’m seeing things that apparently only I can see. _]

Nicolette stepped out of the storage alcove, glancing nervously down into the dark loading bay recessed into the ground, turning her back on Daniel and Tommy while she got herself under control, embarrassed at the emotions she knew were clearly painted across her face. She shuddered as she realized what was likely loaded into and out of that particular loading bay, abruptly unnerved by the shadowed concrete depression, her imagination conjuring up memories of all the horror movies she regretted watching as a teenager.

What am I doing here? , she wondered, longing to be anywhere else. She felt conspicuous and exposed, standing in her mismatched evening wear, shivering in the cold San Francisco night. She desperately wanted answers -- something, anything that would offer some explanation for her hallucinations. Her shared hallucinations, based on some of the things that Daniel had said to her. She felt as though her sanity was hanging over a cliff, with only the smallest of saplings to grab onto in an effort to halt her accelerating slide into madness; the fact that her hallucinations were shared with Daniel, was that tiny, half dead sapling. Every second she stood here felt like a grinding weight, crushing her.

Daniel squinted at the door again; he could see a hint of what she described out of the corner of his eye, but if he looked at it directly, the faint metallic red flicker disappeared…but he could almost feel its presence, like something a hair’s breadth beyond his senses. For some reason, knowing the circle was there left him nervous and on edge. He tried to shake the feeling as Nicolette turned around, pulling her hands from the steel railing above the short drop into the loading bay.

“Nikki…I think I see it, too.” She raised her eyes, relief briefly visible in her expression before she schooled her face to stillness. He turned his head to the side, dimly able to see a red shimmer. He raised his hand, lightly touching his fingertips to the center of the circle. He drew his fingertips along the cold steel until they reached the inner edge of the ring, something more felt than seen as his fingertip began to tingle faintly. It left him feeling vaguely uneasy.

Their eyes met, his eyebrows rising in silent query. After a moment, she nodded reluctantly, but he thought he could detect a hint of relief again. With s slight nod of acknowledgement, he turned the same questioning expression toward Tommy.

Tommy frowned, the slightest hint of irritation in his voice, “Already said, ‘no’.”

Daniel nodded, then stepped aside as Tommy pulled a white plastic card from his jacket pocket and slid it through the card reader mounted next to the door. A second later, there was a heavy metallic clack as the lock disengaged, allowing Tommy to pull the door open, revealing a wide, white corridor with white industrial flooring stretching off to either side. Tommy leaned in, glanced left and right along the length of the brightly lit hallway, then gestured for them to step in.

Nikki hesitated, her heart accelerating. She couldn’t believe she was here, in the Medical Examiner's office in the middle of the night; she found herself shaking, the unreality settling over her while a part of her mind admitted this seemed like one more step in the logical progression of weirdness. Taking that step across the threshold suddenly magnified in importance in her mind; taking that step suddenly seemed like a willing surrender of the normal rules that mediated a rational, sane universe; she wondered what would happen if she stepped away -- if her willing retreat would end the weirdness before it could grow. But retreating was unthinkable! After pushing it this far, backing out now would be a tacit admission that her nerve had failed.

She was willing to accept many labels, but ‘coward’ wasn’t one.

Tommy watched her impassively as he held the door open, quietly letting her make her own decision.

Something brave…I can do this one thing, she thought, her giddiness briefly resurfacing.

With a deep breath, she stepped over the threshold into the surreal white corridor, brightly lit by long rows of white fluorescent lights recessed into the ceiling, covered by silver plastic rectangular grids. Tommy unhesitatingly led them to the right after easing the door closed, motioning with his head for them to follow. Their footsteps were magnified by the empty white hallway, the faint buzzing of the lights overhead the only counterpoint to the faint squeak of Daniel’s boots on the white flooring. She started at the muted roar of a truck passing on the freeway adjacent to the building, its passage causing the floor to vibrate under her feet.

Like a minotaur, she thought, waking up somewhere in this white maze. What would a minotaur prowling the Halls of the Dead look like?, she wondered, shuddering at the mental image of the dead man at Coffee Beach, only expanded to fill the corridor, leaking fluid from decaying flesh as it squelched along. She forced the mental image from her mind as she felt a prickle of fear race down her spine, clammy sweat breaking out on the back of her neck.

Nikki…just be brave for a few more minutes. And stop scaring yourself with horror movie theatrics!, she chided.

Ahead of them, she saw two doorways, one halfway down the corridor, the other almost all the way at the end. Unconsciously she measured the distance -- they weren’t close enough should they need to duck out of sight. As they walked down the corridor, she felt a growing certainty that they weren’t alone, were being watched, though she didn’t see any other security cameras in the hallway.

She looked back over her shoulder as a prickling certainty stole over her that she would see some dark figure far down the hallway, the bright lights providing no comfort, instead creating a sense of distortion and unreality. She felt strangely disappointed at the empty corridor stretching behind them, her nervous energy finding no outlet, the empty corridor providing no ease of tension. Her breathing quickened until she was almost panting as they approached a wide security door midway down the length of the corridor. Her skin prickled as she glanced over her shoulder again; she realized she was poised to scream if something was there.

Tommy swiped his card; Nikki unconsciously tensed as he casually pushed through, gesturing for them to wait while he checked the room beyond. She fought the sudden urge to grab Daniel’s sleeve and pull him back. A moment later, Tommy returned gesturing for them to follow him as he muttered, “We’re in luck; it’s empty. Probably don’t have long.”

Daniel followed Tommy, pausing long enough to hold the door open for her, revealing a long, rectangular room with four steel tables, side by side in one row. There was enough space to walk down the length of the room on either side -- enough to wheel a gurney, she realized, and to maneuver the gurney to transfer cadavers. At the head of each table was a scale, likely for weighing organs, she realized, unable to keep herself from checking to see if any of the scales might have...leftovers. She chuckled nervously at the idea of the Medical Examiner leaving something red and gory behind, the way someone might forget change from a soda machine.

Some of the tables are slanted, she realized. Does that mean the blood runs toward the feet or the head…? A cold prickle ran the length of her body, starting in her scalp. She looked away from the scales and tables, trying to force them and the grisly red imaginings out of her mind.

Her heart was pounding in her chest, trepidation making her feet slow. Daniel frowned, throwing a worried look her way -- she could sense his unease underneath his concern for her. Sweat prickled along her brow in unpleasant counterpoint to the clamminess of her skin as she paused by the table farthest from the door.

Tommy spoke over his shoulder as he casually walked toward a pair of wide swinging doors at the far end of the room, “‘Gotta get Mr. Doe.”

He glanced over his shoulder unconcernedly, then paused as he caught sight of Nikki’s expression and Daniel’s worried frown. He glanced back and forth between them, his expression puzzled and assessing. Tommy returned from the swinging doors, surprising her when he took her hands, staring intently into her eyes. He spoke quietly, a hint of solemn reassurance in his voice, “Just a little longer and we can go.”

Nicolette nodded numbly, but said nothing. She realized she was shaking with fear.

They watched as he pushed through the swinging doors, intent on the task before him. Nicolette jumped as Daniel unconsciously sidled closer to her, gently pressing his hand into the middle of her back. She glanced at him curiously, but found his abstracted expression unreadable. Her first impulse was to step away, pointedly distancing herself. She hesitated as she realized he was unnerved and seeking comfort as much as offering it. She didn’t have long to contemplate as Tommy pushed a steel gurney through the swinging doors, seemingly unperturbed by the grisly passenger laid out in front of him. She wondered what he did here that he could be so blasé about handling the dead.

She felt her body break out into unpleasant goosebumps at the sight of a white-shrouded figure lying on the gurney, her breathing shortening. Nicolette had grown up in a sheltered, middle-class home, had never dealt directly with death or mortal remains. She was caught between her desire to fulfill her promise to Tommy and the desire to turn on her heel and run; run as fast as she could, fleeing back the way they came, back to the car, back to Half Moon, back to the safety of her apartment, dignity surrendered in service to her sanity.

What did she owe Tommy and Daniel, anyway? Tommy had never been particularly friendly or close; her heart still ached from Daniel’s parting words.

She watched as Tommy locked the wheels while he spoke, then turned, motioning her forward. Almost against her will, she stepped forward, walking numbly toward Tommy and the hideously suggestive contours underneath the white shroud. Daniel grabbed at her elbow, murmuring her name, but she yanked her arm out from his grip.

She swallowed hard as unpleasant tasting saliva flooded her mouth. Tommy quietly withdrew, standing behind the portion of the sheet tented under Mr. Doe’s nose. As she approached, she saw a hand and wrist peeping out from underneath the sheet, palm down on the steel table. She felt cold horror, her nausea worsening as she noted the underside of his wrist was dark with lividity, looking like a long bruise. She swallowed again when she noticed the ragged edge of flesh around the pad of his thumb and index finger, dark red flesh visible through the waxy, pale skin. A tiny, wickedly coherent part of her mind protested the injustice of having to spend one’s last hours naked on a chilly steel table, but the thought was quickly subsumed by the storm of emotions and terror clouding her thoughts. She was poised to flinch, her throat locked against a scream as she half expected Tommy to whip the sheet off to reveal something horrible that she wouldn’t be able to unsee.

But he only stood, watching her expressionlessly, his hands resting lightly on the steel table above Mr. Doe’s head.

Speaking through numb lips, feeling as though her speech must have been slurry and hard to understand, she asked, “Is this the brave thing you want me to do? What…” her voice died away as she realized she didn’t know what to ask.

Tommy nodded toward the exposed hand, “Check Mr. Doe’s pulse. You know how to do that?”

Nikki looked down at the hand -- in fact had already been staring at it in grimly fascinated horror, feeling sour alive flooding her mouth as she noted the greenish tinge that come over the dead flesh. She nodded dully, not wanting to touch the dead man’s skin, but feeling as though this was the only way through to the other side of this ordeal. She was aware of Daniel standing by her side, “Nikki, fuck this...”

His voice acted as a goad, momentarily giving her the impetus to continue. His voice dropped away as she reached out, steeling herself for the contact. She flinched when her fingers touched the top of his wrist, feeling his chilly flesh under her fingertips. That same wickedly coherent part of her mind whispered that this was how her mother’s hands always felt; cold and unyielding. The dead man’s flesh was supple and yet not; it felt like icy marble, but the texture of his skin confused her senses with expectations of supple warmth. She felt a part of her mind recoiling, wanting to separate from her, to create some kind of distance from her senses. She curled her hand around his unyielding wrist so she could lightly press her fingertips against the artery under his thumb, expecting to find stillness. She shuddered violently as she increased the pressure against the hard, cold flesh. She didn’t expect to find a pulse, and was subsequently unsurprised when she didn’t find one.

Still feeling as though she was trying to speak through numb and unyielding lips, she heard herself asking, “Is this supposed to be some kind of—“

The hand slipped off the table -- that was her first thought when she felt the wrist turning under her fingertips. Fingers wrapped around her wrist with a marble-cold, hard-flesh bloodless grip. She experienced a strange breathless sensation, vertigo while all the air left the room. She heard Daniel give a shout of surprise. Instinctively, Nicolette jerked back, trying to break the cadaver’s grip on her wrist. The corpse was jerked half upright, the sheet falling away, pooling around his waist. She found herself looking into the corpse’s strangely inanimate face, the eyes horribly clouded in death, the skin a disturbing mottled shade of greenish blue. She felt a rippling prickle around the edges of her face, felt it spread down her neck, climbing from her ankles. When the ripple of sensation met, her diaphragm painfully contracted.

Mr. Doe’s throat was a torn, churned mass of dark red flesh, with bits of white and yellow tissue visible. The corpses’ jaw, gleaming white bone partly exposed on one side, flopped open as she jerked back harder, pulling him more upright, the raggedly torn flesh of his cheek exposing his teeth all the way to the gum line, giving the cadaver a lunatic half-grin. There was one bated moment where the tableau froze, then clearly they all heard the cadaver hiss through its torn throat and floppily connected jaw, “Vampire!”

Nicolette’s diaphragm contracted painfully as a scream of horror tore its way out of her throat, almost deafening in the echoey hard-surfaced room. She was distantly aware of the warm rush down the insides of her thighs as her bladder let go. The corpse hissed again, “Vampire!”

She screamed, feeling as though every muscle in her body was pushing air through her throat. It felt as though the flesh was tearing apart. She began fighting in earnest, jerking backward again, half pulling the cadaver off the table, her free hand rising to slap at the prisoning hand, but unable to overcome her horror and actually touch it. As the corpse started to slip from the table, Daniel and Tommy were jerked from their stunned, terrified stasis. Daniel lunged forward, grabbing the cadaver’s wrist, barely even aware of Nicolette’s nails tearing into his wrist where she frantically ripped at the corpses’ hand as she tried to loosen its grip. Tommy grabbed the corpse’s shoulders, pulling back to keep it from tumbling to the floor.

“Vampire!” it hissed again, though Daniel only was only peripherally aware of the third repetition, when Nicolette shrieked almost into his right ear, the sheer panic-driven volume leaving his right ear numb to sound for several hours afterward. Heart pounding, he heard the crackle of bone as he pulled back the cadaver’s thumb to an impossible angle, then again as he began working his way over the hand. The cadaver hissed into the silence between Nicolette’s screams one last time: “Archangel!”

Then Daniel finally shattered the corpse’s wrist bones with an adrenaline driven blow. Nicolette jerked free, stumbled backward, feeling the corner of one of the other steel tables slam into her spine, causing her to slip to the floor. Daniel caught her just before her head slammed into an adjacent table, straddling her awkwardly.

Then the room was silent, the silence broken only by harsh panting and a quiet oath from Tommy as he quickly arranged the corpse back on the table. He bent to unlock the wheels, “We have to go!”

Daniel, still supporting Nicolette’s head, spun on Tommy, his fear and horror turning to rage, “What the FUCK was that? Was this some kind of joke?” If he hadn’t been supporting Nicolette, he’d have lunged across the room and grabbed Tommy by the lapels of his leather jacket.

Tommy shook his head as he began wheeling the table back into the cold room, “A friend of mine suggested… I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life!”

Daniel was momentarily stunned into stillness. He’d never seen Tommy so unsettled. He was as close to losing his cool as Daniel had ever seen. Abruptly Tommy became aware of Daniel's inertia and swore, “Every security guy in the building is converging on this room -- we HAVE to get out of here!”

He pointed at Nicolette, “Get her up -- I’ll secure this guy.” Seeing Daniel’s hesitation, he added, “Yell at me later, asshole! Get your shit together now!”

He snarled at Tommy, briefly hating him for bringing this crazy situation down on their heads without any warning at all. He turned to Nikki, intending to help her to her feet…and froze. She was still lying on her back, but her body had a boneless, floppy quality that suggested she was unconscious. It wasn’t her unconsciousness that stopped him, it was the sightless, wide-eyed expression on her face that brought him up short.

He gently tapped her cheek with his palm, “Nikki?”

She didn’t react, just stared blankly up him, eyes opened as wide as they would go. He checked her pulse, fingertips pressing into her neck. Her pulse was still racing.

Daniel heard the creak of the heavy swinging doors. He was aware of Tommy standing over him.

“Carry her.”

Daniel nodded. His right arm already supporting her shoulders, he hooked her legs and lifted her into a cradle. He felt a moment of panic as her head flopped bonelessly back, her eyes rolling back in their sockets, reminding him of Mr. Doe’s filmed over dead man’s eyes.

“C’mon, Nikki. Not like this,” he found himself pleading as he followed Tommy back into the anonymous white hallway.

“You’re stronger than you think you are…just…come back!” he pleaded.

He felt his eyes burning as he carried her lifeless -- unconscious, unconscious -- body to the back doorway overlooking the loading bays. Daniel carried Nikki into the chilly San Francisco night, hoping the slap of cold might jolt her back. He heard Tommy, just ahead of him, muttering about their good fortune as they hastened back to Daniel's truck.

Daniel had a hard time seeing anything good about their fortune at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New Reality

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Five: Fugue

 

DANIEL and Nicolette listened to the faint susurration of wind soughing through the upper branches of the trees that lined the trail. They had taken the afternoon ostensibly to go hiking, but both Daniel and Nicolette knew that was really just an excuse to head for their favorite spot. They walked in silence, as though the sound of their voices would break the spell that had settled over them. It was a risky adventure -- the memory of their previous visit was still fresh, perhaps contributing to the subtle awkward shyness they shared.

[_ He was aware of her surreptitious glances, her subtle scrutiny as they walked. He was surprised that his apology seemed to have been accepted out of hand, as though events of their previous visit were little more than a minor argument. While he felt relieved -- and completely believed the sincerity of her acceptance -- he nevertheless felt as though something had shifted. _]

He frowned as Rose’s words came back to him, thoughts of seeking other fish seeming disjointed and irrelevant when he thought about his feelings for Nicolette pacing along at his side…and yet oddly compelling.

Am I like her brother -- holding onto something as a matter of habit?

He glanced at her, a familiar nameless worry stirring in his mind. The forest surrounding them seemed to change with his mood; the trail that had seemed open and airy a moment before became shadowy and foreboding, his feelings lending the scenery a dark, brooding aspect. He sighed, struggling with his sorrow and worry.

[_ Daniel's head came up as he heard something, Nicolette jumping when she felt his hand on her back -- the first time he’d touched her without invitation for days. He felt her shudder -- not unpleasantly, perhaps -- as his pinkie touched her skin, finding that little space between her shirt and her jeans. She turned, peering at him quizzically when he came to a stop. She stopped with him, loathe to lose his touch, however fleeting the contact was. _]

His head slowly moved as he scanned the forest surrounding them, brows drawn together. They listened to the harsh, raucous call of a scrub jay, the susurration of the breeze through the pine boughs overhead, then nothing. She started ask him what he was hearing when she heard it herself. She unconsciously took half a step forward as she focused on the sound, cupping her hands over her ears, trying to locate the source. She began walking briskly when she heard it again, Daniel following in her wake. They were nearly jogging when she found the small deer trail angling though the larger gravel path they’d been following, heading toward a rocky outcropping that was nearly vertical.

As they approached, she ducked under a low hanging tree branch, then paused at the scree pile along the base of the rocky cliff, looking upward, scanning the grey, broken rock above them. Daniel stood beside her, waiting. After a moment, she pointed, quietly murmuring, “There he is.”

Daniel followed her pointed finger to a small indentation nearly two thirds of the way up. He saw a flicker of movement, then heard the high pitched distressed whining. A moment later, he saw the black nose and pale fur of a golden retriever pup against the broken yellowish grey shale.

“How did he…?”

He hesitated as Nikki stepped up to the cliff face, eyes quickly scanning the rock. His heart accelerated as he realized what Nikki intended.

“We should call animal control to get…” his voice faltered as he watched the puppy scurry to the edge, then immediately pull back, a small scattering of grit showering down. His heart sank as he realized the puppy probably would fall long before anyone came to help. He doubted it would survive a tumble down the rocky cliff.

“He keeps coming to the edge; he could fall any second,” she murmured, studying the rock face. The first ten feet of the climb looked like crumbly shale. Higher up, the climb looked possible, but he doubted any of the holds he saw would hold his weight. Nikki, on the other hand…

He glanced at her, taking in her determined expression, her other worries momentarily forgotten. She stepped to the rock face, searching for a good place to start climbing.

“Nikki, that’s really crumbly stuff.”

She turned as he stepped up beside her, hesitantly stepping aside to give him room. He glanced up, wincing as the puppy barked loudly in excitement, scurried to the edge then pulled back, scattering more grit from his small nook. She frowned as Daniel shuffled to one side, then knelt abruptly.

[_ "Here," he said, forming a stirrup with his hands, shaking his head when raised her foot. "El otro," he said nodding toward her right foot. When she stared at him quizzically he smiled, "So you can step the other onto my shoulder. I'll stand, then we'll see if I can press you up. I think we can get you most of the way past the bad stuff. Then you can start with that little ledge -- you see it? -- by that patch of thistle." _]

Nikki smiled, bending to kiss him lightly on the lips, “Okay.” She hesitated before adding, “Thank you.”

[_ He made a show of making a put-upon sigh. She chuckled, patting his shoulder gently as she kissed him again, the day seeming to lighten for both of them; here was something she -- they -- could do. She glanced at him, smiling, her dark eyes sparkling in the subdued sunlight. _]

For a brief instant, their love bridged the gulf that had been silently opening between them.

Then she turned her face toward the cliff, crooning at the frightened pup, “Stay where you are, my lovely, help is coming. Whoever your family is, we’ll get you back to them.”

With a grunt of effort, he stood with her perched on his shoulder. She shifted her weight onto his hands, then gasped in surprise when he managed to lift her up, his arms almost fully extended upward while she leaned into the rock face for balance.

She glanced down at him, eye brows raised in surprise, “Wow.” He smirked at her sudden breathlessness, acutely aware of the warmth in her gaze, feeling an answering warmth as their gazes met.

He watched as she stepped off his hands, then climbed. He had no doubt she could do it, but nevertheless watched with his heart in his throat, feeling ill every time the shale broke or her foot slipped. Half way up, she paused on a stable outcropping of some other kind of stone, sweat glistening on her brow as she looked down at him, grinning happily, completely indifferent to her danger.

As their eyes met, she blew him a kiss, laughing at his concerned expression. The moment was burned into his memory, her fierce joy at doing something meaningful giving her face a heightened beauty, her face filled with fierce vitality as

 

his vision blurred as he stared down into her slack expression, the cold breeze ruffling her hair. He struggled desperately to find even the smallest hint of the girl on the cliff. He blinked rapidly as her head continued to jounce in time with his stride, her arm slipping free to dangle bonelessly as he walked.

Tommy and Daniel hurried through the darkness and noise of the city street beneath the freeway. The adrenaline dump from the terror of seeing the corpse reanimate had abated, leaving him exhausted and shaky. He struggling to make sense of what he’d seen: cadaver was actually an actor in good makeup; it wasn’t a cadaver but papier-mâché; it was a real corpse used in an elaborate prank -- a horrifying thought all by itself. All these possibilities ran through his mind as he followed Tommy, carrying Nicolette in his arms, trying to ignore the boneless quality of her body, her head lolling as he moved, her eyes frozen open as wide as they would go, the rest of her muscles slack.

But subconsciously, an understanding fluttered around the edges of his thoughts, waiting to be acknowledged -- the understanding that it hadn’t been a trick, that a dead man had reanimated and spoken to them, then died a second time. Had it not been for the strangeness of the preceding weeks, the admission that he had just seen a corpse reanimate might not have been possible. He realized that he and Nikki had never gotten around to comparing notes. He wondered if this whole situation might have been rendered unnecessary if they had.

He shook the thought off as they reached his truck. There would be time for blame and self-recrimination later. He tried to stand Nicolette up against the side of the cab so he could fish the keys out of his pocket, but her knees did nothing to support her weight, collapsing almost as soon as he let any of her weight go. Then Tommy was there, helping to support her from the other side as Daniel got the passenger door open. They lifted her gently into the bucket seat.

“Nikki!”

He gently pulled her head around, the skin of her face feeling clammy under his palms. He felt a shiver of fear race down his spine, sending cold prickles to his extremities when she remained unresponsive. After snapping in front of her eyes produced no results, he glanced over to Tommy, hoping that Tommy might suggest some helpful course of action, but Tommy was staring back the way they came, watching the ME’s office, presumably checking to see if any of the building’s security was looking for them. With a snarl of frustration, Daniel fastened Nikki’s seatbelt then gently closed the door.

“C’mon, Tommy-T, we need to get out of here. I think she’s in shock and I don’t have the gear to help her.”

“You don’t have first-aid in your truck?”

Daniel shook his head as he rounded the front, then pulled himself into the driver’s seat, “No -- I can keep her from bleeding out or dress minor burns, but I don’t have anything that will help her in this state. We need to get her to a hospital.”

Tommy pulled himself into the back seat, “We’d have to explain what happened,” he hesitated, then reluctantly added, “at least in part. Small trouble for me or thee, Dan, but for a parolee…?”

Daniel glanced at Tommy in the rearview mirror, then turned to take a quick glance at him with his own eyes. Tommy’s calm indifference was pissing him off, in part because it highlighted his own panic, but also because he suspected Tommy was at least partly right; questions could put Nicolette in serious jeopardy of going to back to jail. He realized he had to make a choice where all the available options had potentially severe consequences. He snarled wordlessly as he navigated the city streets, momentarily at a loss how to proceed. He glanced at Nikki as they approached the freeway onramp, heading south toward Half Moon Bay; he could only see her profile -- she had slumped over as soon as he had closed the door, her head almost leaning against the glass. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached across and lightly touched her elbow, unconsciously hoping the touch would elicit some response... any response.

He was disappointed, his disappointment highlighting his fear and desperation. Dimly he was aware of the panicky idea circling vulturelike at the edge of his thoughts: What if she doesn’t come back?

He pushed the thought away as he raced south along the 101, trying to gather his thoughts.

Maybe cutting across to the 280 would be easier, he thought, trying to find a route that would get them back to Half Moon Bay and assistance more quickly.

On impulse, he rolled down her window, hoping the blast of cold night air might shock her back to some semblance of wakefulness.

He watched Tommy in the rearview mirror as he sat with his head turned toward the window; Daniel almost counted five before Tommy so much as blinked.

“What the hell was that, Tommy? Start explaining or start walking!”

Tommy’s head swiveled forward, his face an unreadable mask half hidden in shadow. He was silent, unmoving. Daniel felt his frustration rising, eliding with his fear. He struggled not to start raving, hands tightening on the wheel of his truck until he could almost hear his knuckles creak in the windblown interior. Daniel opened his mouth, feeling the snarl turning to a growl in his throat. Tommy replied before Daniel could get more than an inarticulate sound of anger out, “Heard Nikki had strangeness at the animal shelter. Reminded me of something…”

He lapsed into momentary silence before continuing, “A friend knows about occult stuff; after hearing about all the weirdness, something my friend said…”

He trailed off again, momentarily lost in thought.

“Tom…”

Tommy shook himself, “She said something about psychometry. Thought it was bullshit, but since so much weirdness….seemed worth a shot. Didn’t want to bias the experiment. Didn’t expect, well, much of anything. Didn’t expect…that. That was madness.”

Daniel drove in silence, digesting this. He glanced over at Nicolette, noting that she’d slumped further, but that her eyes were closed. He wondered what that signified.

He shook his head, “You’re full of shit, Tommy.”

He watched as Tommy’s eyes narrowed, “I haven’t lied.”

Daniel snorted, “No…but you’re not telling the truth either. You’re holding back.”

Tommy shrugged, his momentary annoyance quickly subsiding beneath his surface calm. He turned back to the window, muttering “F’believing that helps…”

After knowing Tommy for almost fourteen years, he couldn’t have said how he knew -- maybe it was the set of his shoulders, or some subtlety of his expression -- but Daniel suspected Tommy wasn’t going to say anything further on the subject. He swore, slamming his fist into the steering wheel, “This conversation isn’t over, Tom.”

Tommy just shrugged but offered no other comment.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Six: The New Reality

 

DANIEL raced south on the freeway, all but daring the CHP to pull him over, silently praying that Nicolette would wake up. He leaned toward her, one hand on the wheel while he checked her vitals again, hoping for any sign of improvement; he snarled with frustration as he sat back up, disappointed. His fear for her warred with with his horrified wonder at what had just happened, at what he had just witnessed. The implications were staggering, pushing at the boundaries of his mind. One thought kept reverberating: If that can happen…what else is possible? He shuddered as he heard the hissing gurgle of Mr. Haverford’s voice in his memory, the clicking of exposed ligaments working as it spoke.

As it motherfucking spoke!, he thought with a mixture of wonder and horror.

He pushed the thought away.

He’d deal with it -- and the terrifying implications of its words -- later. He forced himself to focus on Nicolette, forced himself to think through the fear and panic and make a plan. The rational thing to do would be taking her to the nearest hospital; but he had developed an almost talismanic fixation on getting her home, to safety -- somewhere she considered safe as if that would cancel out the fear that had (broken) stunned her…as if it could summon her spirit back. It was irrational; subconsciously he knew it, but the idea had taken root and he couldn’t let it go.

As he exited the freeway, tearing down the offramp which merged with the 92W, heading over the mountains, he fanned out all his options in his mind. He systematically rejected them one by one until he came full circle back to Nicolette’s apartment…and his mother. After nearly two decades as an ER RN, he knew she had experience dealing with situations like this; she definitely kept a better emergency kit than he did. Ramona wouldn’t like it if he showed up out of the blue in the middle of the night, but he was desperate, and she might—

He turned sharply toward Nicolette, “What?”

Hope filled him when she blinked slowly, animation returning to her face as he approached the end of the short frontage road, the intersection a brightly lighted island in the shadow of the freeway.

“Go east,” she repeated, her voice barely above a whisper.

He exhaled with a long, slow breath, the muscles around his lungs finally relaxing, “Nikki, are you okay? What happened? You were…out…for the better part of an hour!”

She levered herself upright, wincing at the rushing night air. A moment later, she found the controls and rolled the window up.

Her voice was hoarse, but in the sudden silence following the window’s mechanical whir, it seemed to fill the cab, “I’m…not sure what happened, exactly.”

She sounded exhausted.

Hell, she looks exhausted, he thought, her pallor and the circles under her eyes giving her a gaunt, emaciated aspect which Daniel found disturbing; she hadn’t looked so skeletal earlier that evening.

“We need to get you home so you can get some rest…”

She shook her head emphatically, her voice strengthening, “No.”

“Nikki—“

“We have to go east!”

Her expression filled with determination and a feverish intensity, her eyes bright with It. He wondered if she was even hearing him.

He tried to force calm into his voice, “Nikki, slow down. Whatever happened back there, it hit you hard! You look” insane “unwell. You need rest -- then we should talk it over--“

Shook her head emphatically, “You don’t understand! I was…shown… Mr. Haverford had a wife and daughter!”

“Nikki, that’s—“

She spoke over him, her gaze turning inward, “I think his wife was also killed.” She looked up, “But I think his daughter might still be alive!”

Daniel gritted his teeth, “Nikki, slow down! You’re talking crazy!”

He was startled when Tommy spoke from the back seat, “What happened after Mr. Doe…Mr. Haverford grabbed you?”

Nicolette shuddered, viscerally recoiling at the memory. She could still feel the marble-cool strength of his grip, the bruise encircling her wrist a darkening bracelet. Daniel could still feel the stinging itch on his own hand and wrist where Nicolette’s nails had torn him in her panic to get free. The scratches were mute testimony that the Medical Examiner’s office had been real, that it wasn’t some kind of flashback; the bruise around her wrist adding emphasis.

He struggled to take a step back, to summon the cold detachment he had learned during his service. Nicolette was still staring at him, wide eyed, her gaunt gaze unnerving. He was worried about her, worried that whatever touching the corpse had done to her mind might still be metastasizing and gaining strength, threatening to drag her further over the edge -- possibly bringing him with her, if he wasn’t careful.

Nikki spoke, her wide-eyed desperation making her voice quavery, “Ever since that night in the Sandflea, we’ve been heading toward this! I’m not going to abandon my daughter to those monsters!”

In his experience, hesitation was one of the surest ways to get hurt when violence was imminent; he had found that it was better to act quickly -- even if he chose an undesirable option -- than to hesitate and evaluate and vacillate.

“Nikki. Stop.”

She snarled at him, reaching for the door handle, intent on exiting the vehicle. He had no idea what she was going to do once her feet hit the pavement, still wearing her pink puffy jacket over her summery cocktail dress, miles from anywhere, but he had no intention of finding out.

He reached across to her, gently placing his hand on the back of her neck where he could see exposed skin over the collar of her jacket. Her skin felt cool and clammy under his hand, the muscles in her neck rock hard under his fingertips.

If her skin feels that cool to me, my hand probably feels hot to her, the thought briefly swirling through his mind.

She shuddered at the contact, almost gasping at the heat of his palm. For one, brief instant, she was poised between shrugging his hand away, and waiting to hear him out. Moist, cool air filled the cab as she hesitated, the incessant chiming of the door-open alarm demanding attention. She didn’t turn to face him, though he could see she was nearly panting with exertion, still thoroughly in the grip of her fever.

“I saw the dead man speak, too, Nikki. Okay? I thought you were gone, for a little while back there.” His breathing hitched involuntarily as he spoke.

She heard the hitch in his voice, his emotion reaching through her urgency. She realized with a kind of embarrassed wonder that she had forgotten he had been standing beside her when Mr. Haverford grabbed her wrist and identified his killer. Some of her pain eased as something in his gaze touched her. Her expression softened, a hint of apology evident as their eyes briefly locked.

She pulled the door shut, a small part of her wanting to cry out at the loss as he withdrew his hand; his palm on her neck had been calming…comforting…his warmth pushing back the memory of chill, dead flesh.

When she was facing him, he spoke, his voice still quavering slightly despite his efforts to project calm, “Tell me what happened.”

She hesitated, gathering her thoughts. She was aware of Tommy in the back seat as he shifted, studying her.

When she began speaking, she was hesitant, choosing her words carefully. As she spoke, she gained confidence and speed, memory eliding into reliving the memories, “After Mr. Haverford grabbed me, I just...I lost it. I think I always knew what was going to happen, which primed me, ramped me up. But when it did...I just...I wasn’t ready for it. It felt as though my fear -- my terror, consumed me and I sort of went outside myself. It’s something I...”

Daniel frowned as she left the original thought unfinished.

“I fainted, I think, though I could still hear you and Tommy -- but it was like listening to a television through the wall in the next room. In my mind’s eye, I started to see what had happened to Mr. Haverford, sort of...dreaming his last minutes.”

Her voice changed, calming, as her gaze once again turned inward, “Mr. Haverford was jogging in the park this morning, before dawn. A man stepped out of a stand of trees beside the trail he was following. Mr. Haverford thinking about his wife, about his daughter -- they'd recently separated; he was distracted and didn’t see the man approaching him. The man grabbed me and...bit me, bit Mr. Haverford on the neck. I wanted to scream with the pain -- I could feel his teeth popping through the skin of my throat, but I...I couldn’t scream. I tried to fight back, to use some of the self-defense things he knew, but the man attacking me was too strong.”

Daniel and Tommy exchanged worried glances when she unconsciously switched to the first person, pain and fear suffusing her voice, her eyes wide but unseeing as she spoke.

“After I was laid on the ground, dying, almost paralyzed from my injuries, I watch as the man pulls my wallet out of my pocket. I can see blood running down his chin; his skin is cadaverous, waxy, spotted with black rot -- I’m afraid I might catch a blood disease. He flips through my wallet, smiling down at me as he looks through my pictures. I try to get up, try to fight back, but he doesn’t even flinch, my struggles barely register! I’m so weak and my neck and throat hurt; I can’t close my mouth, it hurts and the m-muscles aren’t working right. I’m choking on my own blood.”

Daniel reached for shoulders, massaging her through jacket as her face crumpled, lips pulling back from her teeth, “I wanted to scream at him to leave my family alone, my family…”

She unconsciously clutched her throat with her right hand, “I can barely breathe! I’m choking, but I can barely move!

Daniel watched, dark, tear shot eyes wide with horror and fear, her hand rising as though she was reaching through her memories, reaching toward the tableau she saw in her mind’s eye, her hand closing convulsively on his jacket.

“I try to yell -- to shout for help, but I can only whisper, only make a faint buzzing noise through my throat. The man, my killer -- a man named...a monster named Archangel, picks me up and carries me off the trail. He lays me on the ground, in the shadows hidden from the jogging trail. I’m so cold and dizzy; the air is painful where it bubbles in my throat. The monster bends over me -- Archangel...”

She shuddered visibly, one hand splayed over her abdomen, the other convulsively clutching her throat protectively, seemingly unaware of the tears slipping down her cheeks.

“Never mind that,” Daniel prompted gently, “what happened afterward?”

“I...I think I -- he died shortly after that. That’s when I came back, sitting here with the cold air from the open window...

“He died thinking of his family, even as he felt the monster's teeth in his throat. Mr. Haverford’s daughter, Marnie, is six. If she’s not dead, she’s now probably an orphan; if we move quickly -- if we go east! -- we can still save her! Keep her from having her head half chewed off like her father and by now probably her mother! I don’t know how I know all this, or what caused me to...dream it...relive it, but I know it’s all true, that I wasn’t just…imagining things! On top of everything else…”

She spoke pleadingly as her expression filled with horror, “I don’t think I could live with myself if I -- we -- don’t do something!”

Daniel watched as her fever began to rise again, her desperate urgency reasserting itself. He realized he agreed with her, implicitly understanding that she was right; he needed to act.

He shook himself as Nikki’s hopeful expression began to darken into a scowl of impatience, “Did your vision give you any hint how we kill a vampire?”

She sighed, sagging back into the bucket seat as she momentarily covered her eyes, then shook her head. Daniel glanced at Tommy in the back seat, raising his eyebrows in implicit query. He watched as the faintest hint of a sardonic smile played about his lips, then he shrugged, “You watched the same shows I did. Wooden stakes? Holy water? Sunlight?”

Daniel glared at Tommy, silently promising that they would have words when things calmed down, then rubbed his forehead, “Well, I’m fresh out of sunlight and I forgot the holy water in my other jacket. The best I can offer are a couple of wooden dowels. We’re lucky -- I have some woodworking tools in the back that I’ve been storing in my truck -- no space in the workshop.”

Tommy nodded, muttering, “On it,” as he unbuckled himself and began rooting around in the wrack in the back of the Ford.

Daniel turned toward Nikki. Their eyes met and his heart sped up. He realized It felt good to be doing something, even if the intel was…sketchy. As a soldier, he had often contemplated the ironies of his job as he dealt death and destruction in pursuit of an ideal, an ideal that was fundamentally compassionate; helping a foreign civilization under siege stabilize and grow. By the end of his service, he had lost those ideals, that sense of altruism in the fighting; he’d lost himself in the killing, watching his friends kill and die, sometimes with injuries that were…unspeakable. His work as a paramedic had been a step toward rebalancing from the killing and death. If he wasn’t crazy, if Nikki wasn’t crazy, if this whole insane situation wasn’t just a psychotic break…he felt as though he was being given something akin to a second chance, an expanded capacity to make amends…and perhaps find healing along the way.

As Tommy began rattling around in the storage area in the back of his truck, Daniel met Nikki’s gaze and smiled grimly.

“Do you have an address?”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Leaps of Faith

 

DANIEL drove slowly down the block, past a long row of small, suburban houses. The street was dark, lit intermittently by street lamps, with only the occasional light showing in any of the windows. He reflected that there was some advantage to having started their adventure so late in the evening, since most of the residents were probably deeply asleep. He shook his head slightly as he reflected that only three hours ago, he had lived in a sane, rational universe where he worked the night shift, had to pay taxes and rent, and worried if his truck needed gas; now he was driving in Oakland in the middle of the night, 40 miles away from home, hunting a vampire after a corpse woke up and told him who had killed it. Daniel honestly didn’t think his day could get any more bizarre.

“There it is,” Nikki murmured into his ear, pointing across the street. He could hear her tension and barely restrained excitement.

“Are you sure?”

The delirious urgency which had been driving her had fallen away when Daniel had put the truck in gear and started speeding down the freeway toward the Easy Bay, toward Oakland and the terminus of her...dream. She still seemed calm and self possessed -- the polar opposite of the woman she had been in the Medical Examiner's office after the corpse had grabbed her.

Hell, he thought, I’d have pissed myself and worse if it had grabbed me.

Unperturbed by his expressed doubt, she nodded, “Yeah -- I recognize the lawn flamingo and the bright red mailbox. I think it used to have a Snoopy on it, but some of the neighborhood kids stole him.”

Daniel glanced at her uncertainly, wondering if she was just making that up to tease him. He was disturbed by her calm certainty.

“Okay. It looks like we might be able to get through on the other side as well, though we might have to cut through a neighbor’s yard if it comes to that.”

Nikki hesitated, “Why don’t we just…you know…go!”

He glanced over his shoulder as he smiled grimly, “Odds are, we’re all going to be doing a nickel apiece at Soledad for first degree burglary come this time tomorrow, but I’d like to slant the field away from that a little bit. That starts with knowing how we’re going in, how we’re getting out, and some idea of our plan of attack.”

Nicolette nodded slowly, “Okay. What do you want me to do?” Her voice was subdued as she spoke. She had been contemplating fighting the (vampire!) girl’s attacker since Daniel had begun their drive to Oakland, fearful of the violence and the potential harm that could come from such a fight; she had never even paused to consider the consequences of their actions. She shook her head in disgust. Nicolette had already served one prison term for first degree burglary -- and gotten off fairly lightly, all things considered! She had few doubts a second such conviction was likely to end so well. She felt nauseous at the thought of another lengthy prison term, of losing her privacy and newly won freedom. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d jumped into a dangerous situation without stopping to evaluate personal cost, but she had hoped she might have learned at least a little sense.

She snorted in disgust, shaking her head, Still thinking two steps ahead, with no thought about where you are now.

Daniel circled the block, then drove an extra block further, before pulling over to the side.

“I think we should go in the front and sweep from front to back; Nikki can be waiting in the truck on the other side. We’ll have to hop the neighbor’s back fence, but I didn’t see any hint of dogs and it’s not high. If we get lucky, we can be on the way out before anyone calls the police. Tommy? Any thoughts?”

Tommy’s brow briefly furrowed, then he shrugged after a moment’s further consideration, “S’a small shotgun single.”

Daniel nodded thoughtfully; the home looked to be small and rectangular, with the short side facing the street. If the house had been bigger or multistoried, clearing it would have taken an unacceptably long time, possibly necessitating more equipment and a more sophisticated plan. But, like most of the homes on that city block, it wasn’t big or multistoried. It had only a modest bit of decorative landscaping; a small square of grass, a couple trees, some patchy flowering bushes and little else. He wouldn’t have minded owning it…though he doubted it would ever be in his price range…especially if he was going to be spending the next five years stamping license plates.

Next time, browse Google Maps, he thought. Start reconning the place en route instead of five minutes before going in. It never even occurred to him to wonder at the unconscious inclusion of “next time”.

He turned to Nikki, “Can you drive my truck?”

She hesitated, then nodded; it was an automatic, thankfully, though bigger than anything she had learned on. Her biggest worry was taking responsibility for his truck when he clearly had so much investment in it.

After moment’s pause, he unclipped his seat belt and hopped down to the pavement while Nikki climbed over the center console and settled in the driver’s seat. The wheel and pedals seemed impossibly far away, and she struggled a moment with the seat, bringing it closer to the dash. She could still feel the warmth where Daniel had been sitting a moment before, taking comfort from the fantasy proximity. Even when things were so hopelessly messed up between them, she still found comfort in his presence. She watched expressionlessly as he pulled himself into the passenger’s seat, though she noticed he didn’t bother to use his seatbelt.

He pulled the door closed, “Circle the block one last time, then drop us at the corner. We’re going to try and go over the fence through the neighbor’s yard on the way out, so find a place to wait on the other side. You know where?”

She nodded tensely, remembering where the neighbor’s driveway came out on the other side of the block. As she approached the intersection, she felt her heart accelerating; suddenly this had gone from something contemplated in the abstract to something dangerously real and immediate. She could feel Daniel’s impatience as she drove at little more than a fast walk, then braked sharply, watching as Daniel reached out and caught himself on the dash. She braced herself for a sharp comment or an indirect rebuke, but he was focused and intent, staring out into the darkened suburban streets.

She wondered how he could be so calm; she was just going to be sitting in the truck, doing little more than waiting and she was almost shaking with terror. Her earlier resolve had been shaken at the realization that this might be the last time she would see Daniel alive. Her throat ached at the prospect. She wanted to say something, to explain her feelings, in case… She pushed the thought from her mind, knowing it was sapping her courage. She focused on finding something to say while she still could.

Unaware of Nicolette’s internal struggle, Daniel quickly surveyed the quiet neighborhood. He wished it was darker and that there was better hard cover, but the situation wasn’t too bad.

“Give us, say, 10 minutes. If we’re not out by then, bail. Same if you start to hear sirens. But Nikki…” he hesitated, knowing she wasn’t going to like what he was going to say next, “Stay in the truck. You’re already on legal thin ice, what with you being on probation. We’ve already had you trespassing, the last thing we need is for you leave any forensic behind. I’m guessing it won’t take much to get you in serious trouble…”

He watched as she bristled, starting to say something biting, but something in his tone brought her up short. He watched as she relaxed, then visibly forced herself to nod, “No, not much.”

She took a deep breath, then nodded again, meeting his eyes as she said, “Be careful.”

He smiled tightly, then threw a quizzical glance at Tommy in the back seat; Tommy just nodded, favoring Daniel with a small, amused smile; as far as Daniel could tell, Tommy wasn’t even nervous. He glanced one more time at Nicolette, “Leave the window open while you wait.”

“Daniel…”

He turned, waiting for her to speak. Though her face was partly in shadow, he could see her throat working as she tried to speak. On impulse, he reached out, lightly cupping her cheek, “I might…I definitely owe you an apology. When I get back, we’ll talk.”

She heard the emphasis on when, then nodded, suddenly finding her voice deserting her.

He withdrew his hand, his voice becoming businesslike, “Ten minutes. And leave the window open.”

This is fucking nuts! he thought, feeling the preliminary adrenaline dump as he pulled open the door and stepped onto the pavement, aware of Tommy stepping down beside him. They both eased their doors shut, then began walking along the block, heading toward the small grey house near the other end of the block as Nicolette pulled away from the curb, then signaled a left. Daniel pulled out a pair of rubber medical gloves from his pocket, pulling them on with ease that spoke of long habit. Wordlessly, Tommy held out the sharpened wooden dowel until Daniel took it and pressed the 7 inch length of sharpened wood against this forearm, hiding it from anyone that might chance to observe them walking down the street. Tommy pulled on a pair of dark purple rubber gloves as well.

He glanced at Tommy, his cool facade and Mona Lisa smile making Daniel aware of the prickle of sweat that had broken across his forehead despite the relative coolness of the night. Disconcerting as his equitable acceptance was, Daniel found it reassuring that the thought of breaking into a stranger’s house on the suspicion of -- he almost couldn’t suppress a smile at the thought -- undead, and then subsequently fighting said undead didn’t seem to phase him. He felt reassured that his wingman was steady; years of friendship had given them a measure of rapport and trust, but it wasn’t often that friendships were tested under such insane circumstances.

They approached the end of the block, passing a pink stucco house, its yard busy with plants and lawn decorations, the faint rush of the freeway subtly filing the air around them. He half turned to Tommy, murmuring quietly, “I’m not going to wait. There’s no security screen, so I’m just going to go straight up the steps and kick in the front door.”

Tommy nodded, “Won’t have much time after.”

Daniel nodded back, “I know -- but if we move fast enough, we might get lucky.”

Tommy snorted, making his disdain for reliance on luck clear. They passed the low fence of the pink stucco house, coming abreast of the grey house. The facade facing the street was split between bay windows in a convex curve toward the street, and a square arch with a recessed front porch on the other half. He could see a window in the front porch facing the street; the front door was perpendicular to the front steps, opening into the room fronted by the bay windows. As they walked up the short path though a front yard of red lava rocks and desert succulents, Daniel’s mind automatically noted the front door probably opened into the living room while the window probably was a bedroom. They passed into the shadow of the house’s peaked roof, climbing the three steps into the front porch. Daniel was gratified when the steps barely made any noise at all.

He was on the left edge of the steps opposite the front door, moving slightly ahead of Tommy. He spared one glance at Tommy, then picked up speed as he climbed. Years of practice searching hooches (homes, his mind autocorrected) allowed him to time his approach perfectly, capturing his momentum as he raised his foot and threw every bit of his nearly 200 pounds into a point two inches beyond the door’s lock plate. The door exploded back with a heavy, splintery thud, the frame shattering into splinters. The door smashed back against the wall with a smaller secondary thud. Daniel used his forward momentum to carry him through the doorway into a spacious living room. He was aware of Tommy following him, almost at his heels.

 

Nicolette rounded the corner, watching Daniel and Tommy walking down the darkened suburban street toward the grey house near the end of the block. How they managed to look so calm, knowing that they were about to face down a monster… She doubted she would be so collected…as if that hadn’t just been unambiguously proven not two hours ago at the Medical Examiner’s office. She desperately wanted to shower and change her clothes, hating the way they clung damply to her body, hating the way they made her feel. She wrinkled her nose in discomfort as she rounded the corner and began heading up the block, looking for a place to park the Ford while she waited. She wished it wasn’t so loud or so…big. It made her feel obvious and exposed. What would she say if a peace officer showed up, asking questions?

Gee officer, I know I’m an ex-con 40 miles from home sitting in a truck that I don’t own, hanging out with the engine idling, acting as though I’m the getaway driver for a felony which is likely in progress, but I, um, couldn’t sleep. And went for a drive. In someone else’s truck. Are there any weapons in the back? It’s not my truck, so I have no idea, but, I’m gonna go with….’No’?

Nicolette had always possessed mediocre parking karma, but she murmured a fervent prayer of thanks to whomever might be listening that it was in tonight as she found a shady bit of curb which was almost directly across from the driveway where she expected (hoped!) they would come out. She deliberated a moment, then turned off the engine, knowing that the heavy throb It made could be heard from a long distance. She wanted to be ready to drive away at a moment’s notice, but didn’t want to attract undue attention. She stared intently down the driveway, waiting for even the slightest hint of movement. She traced the line of rooftops on the other side of the block until she found the one she thought was the Haverford’s home, just barely visible over the fence at the far end of the driveway across the street.

How many ways am I in violation of my parole tonight? I already got one count of trespassing; I’m willing to bet there are weapons in Daniel’s truck which aren’t locked up; knowing that Daniel and Tommy are going to commit a crime puts me in conspiracy territory, and since I’m driving the darned getaway vehicle probably makes me an accomplice. Not bad for 4 hours of effort, doofus.

Abruptly she was angry, snarling at herself and her burgeoning self pity. She smacked her palm against the steering wheel, imagining she was swatting away her self-doubt.

[_ You know you’re right; I would gladly do the time if it means a six year old gets a chance to escape from a monster, maybe even to grow up and mean something. You got a cruddy hand; deal with it, because right now you -- and by extension Daniel and Tommy -- are all she’s got! _]

Daniel’s words came back to her, driving thoughts of parole and self-pity out of her mind. She frantically thumbed the switch to roll the window down. Cold, night air filled the truck, bringing with it the smell of damp air and the heavy perfume of a gardenia bush flowering nearby.

Did I miss anything…?, she wondered, holding her breath in an effort to pierce the gloom and silence, broken only by the distant rush of the freeway.

A minute passed, then two as she strained to hear anything -- sirens or any noises that might be signifying. As she sat, listening, eyes wide, she was filled with a sudden certainty that things were happening just out of the range of perception. She found herself imagining all of the terrible things that might be going on, helpless to stop herself from playing out all the various scenarios. As she waited, feeling more and more certain that things were going sideways, her imagination supplied her with an exceptionally vivid tableau.

She sat, heart hammering at the prospect she imagined, until the sound of breaking glass startled her out of her momentary paralysis. She swore vehemently as she jerked the truck’s door open, then hit the pavement running, unmindful of the soft dinging Daniel’s truck made as it tried to warn whomever was listening that the door was open with the keys still in the steering column…

 

Clock’s ticking, he thought, time for the real work to begin.

He and Tommy crouched at one end of the living room, the silence deafening after the thunderous crash of the door being kicked open. Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked away the seconds as they waited for a response.

The house remained silent. As his eyes adjusted to the deeper gloom of the interior of the house, Daniel saw a couch along the left wall of the room, a fireplace and an entertainment cabinet directly across from the couch. Deeper in the gloom, he could see a dining table surrounded by chairs, with what he suspected was the kitchen beyond. On the far side of the couch, Daniel saw a doorway which probably opened onto a short hallway which led to the bedrooms and the bathroom.

He drew in his breath sharply as he realized that someone was sitting on the couch…or reclining on it. The light wasn’t good enough for him to be sure. He and Tommy began edging forward, weapons up.

Seriously, Daniel? You’ve been trained to use the most modern high tech weapon available to any army in the world, and when you kick down a door intent on doing violence….you do it while clutching a toothpick in your fist…?

The figure on the couch was a woman, but there was no doubt she was dead. Standing over her, he could smell blood and other things that she’d done while she died. He reached out to check her pulse...but hesitated as he realized there was nowhere to put his fingers -- even in the gloom he could see ragged flesh where her throat should have been. He checked her wrist, but immediately withdrew his hand; her flesh was cold and hard. There was nothing he could do for her.

He quickly moved on, moving deeper into the house. Only his breathing and the clock ticking to itself off to his right broke the silence. He hesitated, listening. Certainty that the ho use wasn’t empty stole over him. He shied away from the source of that certainty even as he embraced the knowledge.

Time for metaphysics later, he admonished himself.

He glanced over his shoulder, meeting Tommy’s eyes, then signaling with his head toward the dining area and the kitchen. They both began moving quietly toward the back of the house. Daniel was acutely aware of the corpse at his back, his imagination juxtaposing the mutilated woman with the memory of Mr. Haverford sitting up. He suppressed a shudder as he felt a cold sweat prickling along the back of his neck.

He resisted the temptation to keep checking her after conceding the point exactly once, seeing only the top her head, her hair hanging limply over the arm of the couch, where it fell into shadow. He paused next to the doorway into the other half of the house, while Tommy leapfrogged him to check the kitchen, clutching the stake in his right hand, a knife held point down in his left. Daniel nodded approvingly, wishing he’d thought to bring along his utility knife.

Jesus we did this half assed!, he thought acerbically.

He studied the darkened hallway beyond the door, waiting for Tommy to finish his check. The short hallway was one of only two or three spaces in the small house that didn’t have any windows, the velvety darkness almost a physical presence. He waited, listening, trying to size up the evolving tactical situation based on the noises he could hear. A quiet shuffle from the kitchen drew his attention as Tommy leaned back around the door arch that separated the living room from the kitchen. Daniel raised his eyebrows questioningly, silently querying. Tommy shook his head slightly, then hesitated.

Tommy’s widening eyes were the only warning he got.

An orange flicker and a blur of movement caught the corner of his eye, but he was already rolling to one side as something heavy whickered through the space he had just vacated. A splinter stung his hand as the axe buried itself up to the haft in the wooden flooring with a thunderous crash, making the dining room table jump. Daniel, crouched almost on top of Tommy’s feet, spun and lunged, aiming the point of his shoulder at the shadowy form that had detached itself from the deeper shadow of the hallway.

Just lost your weapon, shithead!, he thought, as the figure had one instant to struggle with the axe before Daniel’s shoulder smashed into it, at least one of its ribs breaking with a muted meaty pop. The hit drove the figure back into the hallway before it could pull the axe free of the flooring. Surprised at the resistance he felt, Daniel continued driving his opponent backward, taking advantage of the man’s hunched over position to drive the stake home once deeply, then a second time less so as blood slicked the surface of the smooth wood.

Abruptly, the man dipped lower than Daniel and tried to grab him in a bear hug; Daniel used his opponent’s shoulder for leverage, hoping to push him to the ground and stab him again. That was when Daniel noticed his eyes; they were glowing an unmistakable orange in the gloom, causing Daniel to momentarily hesitate. That was all the man -- the vampire , Daniel's unconscious mind finally conceded -- needed as the momentary loss of pressure allowed it to hook Daniel's knee with its arm, using his other arm to wrap Daniel's waist. Daniel threw his weight onto the monster’s head, pushing toward the ground, fully expecting a momentary stalemate which might let him stab it again. He hoped that perhaps Tommy might get a shot in, but Daniel was blocking the doorway, his body between Tommy and the vampire.

Daniel was shocked when the vampire lifted him off the ground and slammed him into Tommy, driving the smaller man sideways as it charged into the dining room, using Daniel’s hips and lower back as a battering ram, scattering chairs and upending the dining room table with a deafening crash. Daniel was only dimly aware of the agony blossoming in his lower back as the dining room table nearly severed his spine just above his hips. Knowing he had a second before he was crushed against the wall opposite the hallway, Daniel threw his weight to the side, almost as if he was trying to slam his head into the floor. The vampire wasn’t expecting that, stumbling to the side even as he tried to hold his victim upright so he could crush it against the window frame. They both went down, rolling on the dining room floor, ending with Daniel almost sitting on the vampire’s head.

He immediately wrapped his legs around the vampire’s head, catching one of its arms as Daniel locked his ankles and arched his back. He didn’t have the leverage to break its neck, but it was momentarily pinioned face up. Tommy was there in an instant as the vampire began thrashing about, its physical strength tremendous, the effort to hold it exhausting. Tommy stabbed viciously downward with the wooden stake, looking as though it was going to strike through the monster’s chest, but a sudden thrash to the side caused Tommy’s stroke to land in its shoulder, just above the collar bone, almost in Daniel’s knee.

The vampire shrieked, a sound like tearing sheet metal, multiplied by the vampire’s malice and hatred. Tommy’s biceps and arm bulged as he dragged the blade in his left hand across the vampire’s throat, nearly slicing open Daniel’s thigh, ending its terrifying shriek with a loud buzzing gurgle. Daniel swore as he felt the warm rush of blood from the vampire’s ruined throat soaking his jeans. Tommy raised the stake to try for another stab, but the vampire twisted to the side, twisting its spine at an almost impossible angle to deflect the stab with the sole of its shoe, causing the wooden stake to splinter inches from Daniel’s hip against the hardwood floor. Daniel tried to wrench it to the side, hoping to give Tommy a stab though the side of its ribcage like a slaughterhouse pig, but it used its free hand to grab to dining room table to anchor itself.

In the instant after Tommy’s stake splintered against the floor, he was momentarily overextended and off balance; the vampire’s foot caught Tommy square in the chest, lofting him into the air, hips first through the window, glass exploding into the yard like a bomb. A detached part of Daniel’s mind hoped it was safety glass as he watched Tommy land in the middle of the window frame, broken glass likely stabbing up through this thighs as he settled half in, half out. Daniel lost track of Tommy as the vampire let go of the dining room table and began using its blood slicked hand to twist into the gap of Daniel’s thighs, giving it leverage to break his lock with its unbelievable strength.

Just. Fucking. Die!, he thought, as he fought exhaustion and frustrated rage. Daniel redoubled his efforts, feeling every muscle in his lower body quivering with effort, but the vampire freed enough space to twist its head to the side. He saw fangs, and realized almost an instant too late that it was going to bite the inside of his left thigh. With a surprised yell, Daniel yanked back on its hair, holding its head back as he unclasped his ankles, then clumsily rolled to his feet in a knife fighter’s crouch. They stood, momentarily in stalemate in the ruins of the Haverford family’s living room, shattered furniture and glass scattered across the floor, massive blood stains smeared and spattered across the hardwood flooring and walls.

That same detached part of his mind wondered how much of that blood was Daniel’s…he suspected very little of it. If the vampire had been a man, he and Tommy had probably killed it four or five times over; but as a vampire…it seemed pretty fucking lively as it crouched, snarling wetly, gurgling hideously in its throat with its back to the short hallway. Its strange luminescent eyes, lit from within by the vampire’s malevolent animus, flicked back and forth between Tommy and Daniel. Tommy, having levered himself out of the window frame, stood between it and the front door Daniel had kicked in, holding his stake point up in his right hand, his bloodied knife point down in his off hand. Daniel stood blocking the kitchen, still clutching his blood-slicked stake.

Daniel felt a slow grin begin to spread across his face as he realized in some unconscious, subliminal way that the balance of power had shifted.

It doesn’t think it can beat us anymore, he realized, studying the vampire. It’s afraid.

Daniel felt his grin widen, knowing that unless the vampire could see in the dark, the whiteness of his teeth was probably the most visible thing about him in the dim interior of the house, “Tommy,” he panted hoarsely, “let’s stake this motherfucker.”

The vampire bared its teeth (fangs!) at them, gurgled a challenge, then abruptly turned and lunged into the dark corridor behind it. Daniel and Tommy lunged after it, momentarily getting in each other’s way as Daniel realized an instant too late that it was making for the back door in the kitchen into the yard. He snarled with frustration as he shouldered Tommy aside, annoyed that he hadn’t just gone into the kitchen through the dining area and intercepted it.

It’s going to escape!, he realized, as it lunged ahead of them toward the back door; Daniel had no illusions that he could outrun the monster in his current exhausted and likely injured state.

The post-adrenaline hangover is going to suck.

The stray thought was quickly pushed aside as he pounded through the hallway, Tommy on his heels. Daniel snarled as the vampire threw open the back door…

…And pulled back when it found the back door blocked. It stared down at a girl he didn’t recognize, her pale skin cyanotic from the fluorescent light over the doorway. Aware that its pursuers had pulled up short behind it, it raised its fist, intending to shatter her skull for impeding its progress.

Daniel’s lungs froze with horror as he helplessly watched the vampire draw its fist back, its muscles bunch as it prepared to plow through her. Daniel inhaled to shout a warning that he knew would be useless, but abruptly stopped short, his shout unvoiced. Above and behind Nicolette, he saw a recurrence of the blinding silver-white glowing orb, filaments spread around it, as if two wings stretched to either side, the ends of that network of nacreous filaments curling around her. Two of the filaments had wrapped around her head, appearing to bloodlessly penetrate the skin of her temples, two more filaments similarly penetrating her throat. As he watched, a pulse of silvery white light traveled down the filaments in her neck; they reached her skin, then passed through, momentarily lighting up her voice box as she spoke a single word:

“Wait.”

 

Nicolette stood on the back porch, still panting from the effort of climbing the back fence. She did track and field in high school and had never fully stopped running or exercising -- even when she had been in prison, she had never fully allowed her level of fitness to completely desert her. It had been an awkward endeavor dressed in her work clothes, but her sense of urgency had impelled her to make the running jump and pull herself up enough to throw a leg over the top of the fence after a short but fierce scramble. She knew with absolute certainty that she needed to get to the back door first.

She had arrived on the back doorstep just as the door was flung open, coming face to face with a horror; a cadaverous man, his cheeks sunken and blackening with decay, fangs almost as long as her thumbs bared at her, the scent of freshly turned earth and the coppery sent of blood saturating the air around her. Its glowing orange eyes fell on her as it pulled its wrinkled cyanotic lips back in surprise, the horrible red gash it its throat bubbling with a froth of blood as it snarled, the gash momentarily widening as its head tilted back.

Later, the moment would fill her nightmares with all of the things the monster could have done to her, but at that moment, she felt nothing, only an absolute certainty that it would obey her command. She watched as it drew back its fist, intending to knock her out of its way so it could escape.

“Wait,” she commanded, instinctively knowing that it would obey. She watched as it hesitated, eyes going wide as it stumbled back a step, staring fearfully at something above her head.

 

Daniel watched as the vampire stumbled back a step, raised fist momentarily forgotten in its confusion. Daniel lurched forward, guiding the stake with his left hand, his right hand braced against the back to keep it from slipping through his hands again. He watched as the vampire stiffened when it heard his pounding tread on the kitchen floor. Daniel threw his whole body into the stab, tried to focus every advantage of momentum, weight, and training into the point of the stake as he drove it through the vampire’s back, feeling the stake punch through the shoulder blade, the point raising the skin just under the vampire’s collarbone on the other side.

It spun to meet his attack, tearing the stake from his blood slicked grip, trying to raise its elbow as it turned, probably for a strike to Daniel’s temple. The stake impeded its movement, causing the elbow to barely graze his chin. Even so, it spun his head halfway around, sending a painful shock through his jaw as stars exploded across his vision. Half stunned, Daniel bounced back, catching the vampire’s other arm as it continued to spin. He attempted to lock the arm, but the vampire was too strong.

A second too late, it realized that Daniel didn’t want to lock the arm, he wanted to halt its spin, facing Tommy, arms thrown wide. It roared -- Gurgled? Rurgled? -- As Tommy lunged forward, imitating Daniel as he guided the stake with his left hand, bracing it with his right as the dulled point slammed into the left side of its chest. Daniel would never forget the wet, percussive tearing sound as the point pierced flesh.

The baleful light in the vampire’s eyes winked out, the muscles in its body going slack, Daniel’s arm lock causing a loud, wet pop as its shoulder was violently torn from its socket. He watched as Nicolette winced at the sound, then stepped back as the cadaver collapsed to the ground, the sudden stench of corruption filling the air.

The three of them stood, panting, staring down at the pile of bones and flesh that had collapsed half in, half out of the house. The sweet, nauseating stench of putrefaction filled the air. Daniel panted, beginning to feel his injuries and exhaustion as the tail end of his adrenaline dump began to fade. Nicolette stood, covering her mouth in fascinated horror and disgust.

“Was that…?”

Daniel, bracing his hands on his knees as he sank forward, nodded, “The vampire.” He felt too exhausted to speak.

He watched as her gaze fell on his blood soaked clothes, her already pale skin blanching further.

Daniel shook his head, “Mostly…” he hesitated, “its…I think.”

His eyes rose to meet hers, relief and delayed reaction to fear causing her eyes to fill with tears of relief and release. For one, brief instant, he considered enfolding her in his arms, seeking comfort as much as wanting to give it as the blanket of coldness over his emotions fell away.

Before he could make up his mind, her eyes widened in sudden startlement, “The girl!”

Then she was past him, heading deeper into the house, the moment gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Wreckage

 

“NIKKI!” he called, following her into the house despite his exhaustion and injuries. She paused on the threshold of the left doorway into the kitchen, the doorway that let into the combined living room/dining room of the house. She stared wide-eyed at the destruction -- chairs and dining room table shattered and scattered about the room, glass sparkling, winking up at her from the dim light cast by the streetlights. And everywhere, blood. The room reeked of the coppery stench of blood. She sensed Daniel as he stepped up behind her.

“Careful what you touch,” he murmured.

She turned her head slightly, acknowledging that he had spoken without responding, then stepped carefully into the wrack covering the dining room floor. Daniel was stunned; he remembered the vampire using him as a battering ram, remembered pulling the monster to the floor and struggling with it, but he didn’t have the slightest clue what had happened to the dining room table -- it was little more than fancy kindling, along with several of the chairs that had surrounded it. The rest were scattered all over the dining room, including one that was lying legs up in the ruins of the coffee table, shattered glass radiating outward. The flatscreen television in the entertainment cabinet had been knocked over, after the cabinet itself had taken a hit which had caused one side to jump outward toward the coffee table.

His shocked survey of the room was brought up short when Nicolette made a strangled noise in her throat as she saw the woman on the couch. He crunched across the room to step up beside her, joining her in looking down at the dead woman. It was hard to make out too many specific details about her in the dim light, but she was lying on her back, arms spread to either side in a grisly parody of ease. Even in the dim light of the house’s interior, they could see that her throat had been torn open, the savaged mass of tissue between her chin and breastbone mostly black in the dim light, with white bits of bone and other things visible in the ripped and torn mess. Blood had cascaded down the front of her pale blouse, soaking it to her waistline, into the folds of her skirt which had been rucked up onto her stomach. Her wrists and ankles were also torn open, bone glimmering wetly in the darkness.

Nicolette stared at the cadaver, at the wounds on her limbs and throat. She struggled not to throw up, fighting the urge to look away and pretend the body wasn’t there, to go about her business and not see the horror reclining on the couch. Moved by an impulse she didn’t understand, feeling her skin want to peel back from her fingertips, Nicolette reached out. She shuddered violently in disgust and horror at the cold, clammy and yet sticky feeling of the cloth as she pulled down the poor woman’s skirt. The tacky squelch of the cloth as it unfolded caused Nicolette’s stomach to spasm, but she swallowed several times loudly, forcing the taste of vomit back down.

“I’m sorry,” was all she could think to say.

She jumped as Daniel touched her hand before she withdrew, “Wash before you touch your clothes -- and be mindful of fingerprints.” She could hear the emotion in his voice, could see he was visibly moved. She could barely see him in the gloom, but something in his body language communicated sadness and pity. She nodded as the press of time reasserted itself.

She heard the sound of water through the doorway into the backyard. Daniel looked up, met her eyes with an inscrutable look, “Do it fast. Sirens.”

Nikki nodded, swallowing hard and dashed back through the house. She was lucky; she found the little girl in the closet of the master bedroom -- virtually the first place she looked, reasoning the master bedroom was farther from the front of the house than the guest bedroom. The little girl was huddled in the back of the closet, having jammed her body into the back corner, heedless of the pile of shoes, boxes, and other detritus. Her hands and ankles had been tied brutally tight with her mother’s stockings, a crude gag made from bungee cord and socks covering her mouth. As as soon as Nicolette pulled the closet door open, using the sleeve of her jacket as a makeshift glove, the girl began screaming, her eyes squeezed shut, her shrieks muffled by the socks stuffed her in mouth. Nikki reached up and flicked on the closet light, began speaking quietly and reassuringly to her. After a few seconds, the girl’s panic subsided enough for her to open her eyes. She continued making high pitched whimpering noises, but as soon her eyes met Nicolette’s, she thrust out her tied wrists.

Nicolette, misunderstanding the girl’s gesture, grabbed her wrists and began fumbling with the stockings, swearing in frustration at the intractability of the knots, her sense of urgency making her fingers clumsy. The girl shrank away as something lightly touched Nicolette’s shoulder, making her jump. She half turned, snarling with annoyance as she took the proffered pocket knife from Tommy’s hand, using it to slice through the recalcitrant silk. The girl immediately threw herself forward, wrapping her arms around Nikki’s neck, almost strangling her. She was momentarily startled into immobility, then instinctively began rocking the girl, suddenly conscious of her rapid, birdlike heartbeat and sobbing breath.

“Shh-shh, my lovely, shh. We’ve got you now. You’re safe.”

I must be the first kind adult she’s seen since her whole world went mad.

The thought brought her own tears to the surface; she knew all too well what it was like to be a child, captive of an insane and violent adult.

“Shh, baby girl, shh. No one’s going to hurt you.”

She felt Daniel's hand on her shoulder and nodded, knowing how little time she had -- that it might already be too late to make an escape. She detached herself from the little girl, then sliced away the bungee cord, feeling white hot rage rising at the chafed and bloodied corners of her mouth where the cord had abraded her skin, then quickly sliced away the stockings wound around her ankles.

She’s going to be screaming when the circulation starts to come back, Nikki thought disjointedly as she backed out of the closet, carrying the girl after she’d wrapped her arms around Nikki’s neck, then her legs around her waist as Nikki stood up. She turned, heading back out into the living room, but paused at the threshold. She reached across her body, pulling the girl’s head more tightly into her neck as she murmured, “Close your eyes, honey,” then stepped out into the living room, picking her way through the mess, making sure to keep the girl’s head turned firmly away from the horror on the couch. Daniel was at the front door first, holding it open for her. She could hear the sirens in the distance.

She stepped out onto the front porch, relieved none of the neighbors were on the street yet. She settled onto her knees, “Honey, I have to go.”

She waited a moment, but the girl didn’t slacken her grip. She quietly repeated, “Honey, I have to go. If the police see me here, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

A moment passed, the sirens growing louder. The girl reluctantly disengaged, her tear-streaked eyes wide. Nicolette murmured, “I’m so sorry, baby. I wish there was more I could do.”

“Nikki, we have to go.”

“Stay here on the front porch, okay? The police will protect you. Don’t go into the house.”

The girl, still weeping quietly, nodded.

“I’ll find you. I promise.”

The wide eyed, tear stained look that followed Nicolette into the shadows of the ruined home haunted her until the day she died.

Nicolette turned and followed Daniel as he ran through the house. She could see Tommy as he turned and ran back toward the door into the back yard. As she came abreast of the woman on the couch, Nicolette stopped, looking with pity at the corpse. She hesitated, aware that Daniel had paused, turning to watch her as she stood over the woman. Daniel felt his throat tighten, suddenly overcome with grief and rage at the pure senselessness and the grotesque unfairness that a world already so filled with utterly insensate and purposeless violence would be layered with yet another level of madness, that it should be visited so casually on this family.

Nikki, her voice throbbing with emotion, broke into his sudden spiral of emotion, “So help me God, I’ll do everything in my power to protect Marnie and see that she grows up protected and happy.” Daniel nodded agreement, murmuring, “We both will.

They immediately felt a change in the house, the room still smelling of blood and horror and death, but somehow it felt…lighter in some way, as if some brooding aspect of the house had relaxed, sighing in relieved sorrow.

She tearfully repeated into the silence, “So help me God,” then turned and ran for the back door, Daniel at her heels as they passed into the night.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

Thank you for reading Legacy, the first in what I hope will be a series chronicling the lives of not only Nicolette and Daniel as they learn and grow, but of the other denizens of Half Moon Bay. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you enjoyed it, won’t you please leave a review with your favorite retailer?

Thank you,

J. Michael Gonzalez

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

I’ve spent nearly two decades in high tech, working for a variety of organizations at all stages of growth and as an independent consultant. I’ve had an interest in writing since I was old enough to put pen to paper, but recently decided to make the jump off the proverbial cliff and switch to writing full time. I’ve mostly worked in tech, but along the way, I’ve studied a variety of martial arts including Latosa Escrima, Wing Tsun, and Tae Kwon Do as well as dabbling a teeny bit with combat handgunnery. I’ve lived in the back country of the American Southwest, hiking, climbing, whitewater canoeing, and caving. I’ve even competed in a ballroom competition or two.

 

Connect With Me

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jmg_writer

Follow to my blog: http://jmichaelgonzalez.com/forum

Favorite me at Shakespir: https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/jmchael

 

 

Legacy wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my family and friends. So many people have been so kind and helpful in the creation of this book, often with incidental encouragement that meant more than I can easily express, but there are a handful of folks that deserve extra shoutouts:

Leah and Eric have been amazing in their willingness to give feedback at all stages of the project.

Doug, you read and gave feedback for probably half a dozen iterations of Legacy as the storyline evolved.

Devon for being the mad genius that he is.

And special thanks to my mother for her unceasing support.

 


Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy

Nicolette Cooper, a refugee from the Los Angeles sex industry, returns to her hometown, Half Moon Bay, hoping to rebuild her life after seven grueling years away. Nicolette is surprised to find chemistry with her high school sweetheart, Daniel Hayes, an ex–Army Ranger. Their relationship rekindles as they begin a rocky second courtship. Their courtship is interrupted when they are visited by a powerful spirit which drafts them into a primal conflict of good vs evil, granting them power along with a vision of a post-apocalyptic landscape should they fail in their in their duties. Both of them are marked as new Celestial Advocates — beings who protect the mundane world from the Hidden World. Only Nicolette and Daniel — granted abilities they must quickly discover and learn to master — stand between the people of Half Moon Bay and the ancient powers now vying for ascendancy.

  • ISBN: 9781370902026
  • Author: J Michael Gonzalez
  • Published: 2017-04-11 03:05:27
  • Words: 110116
Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy Half Moon Chronicles: Legacy