Truth's Evil Light
Cheveyo Series Book 1
Published by McGregor Publishing, L.L.C.
This book is also available in print at most online retailers.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the authorâs imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2012 Michaela McGregorThis 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. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
My thanks to everyone that provided input and support on the long road. This would not have been possible without you. And especially for my husband, Derek; I love you.
anoigo: (AH-nee-goh) Greek (v) Open. The spell word used to open the portal to Tweentown.
the Antechamber: (n) The sole exit from Tweentown. A building housing all the doors created by using the spell word anoigo.
the Council Chambers: (n) The mansion used by the Zephyri Council in Tweentown and home of the TsÃ¡i.
the DamastÃs: (dah-MAH-stees) Greek (n) An amulet that negates Zephyri magic.
doolally: (DOO-lah-lee) English (adj) Insane.
the Empusae: (ehm-PEW-see) (n) The six original vampires, the makers, the progenitors.
fanÃ³s: (FAH-nohs) Greek (n) lantern. The magical light globes used in Tweentown.
the Farm: Officially named the US Psychic Research and Training Facility, it is where Chevy spent her remaining childhood years after her parent's death. John Murphy headed the program to harness Chevy's talent for the government. The facility is a horse farm in an undisclosed location in the state of Virginia.
the Gate: (n) The entrance to Tweentown.
koutsoÃºvelo: (KOOT-soo-veh-loh) Greek (n) brat.
lÃ½si: (LEE-see) Greek (n) solution, key.
mikroula: (MIH-kroo-lah) Greek (n) little one. Eryx's pet name for Chevy.
the Pixie Colony: (n) (also known as the Colony) Home of the pixies in Tweentown.
the Praetorian: (PREE-tohr-ee-an) (n) The TsÃ¡iâs personal guard. Consisting of 24 warriors, the 6 strongest soldiers from each kingdom are assigned to the Praetorian. During times of peace, the TsÃ¡i uses 2 of the available guards as his personal escort.
the RÃgma: (REEG-mah) Greek (n) Rift. The rift between dimensions that surrounds Tweentown.
signet piece: (n) It can take the form of a ring, pendant or stamp but is usually a ring. The signet is used as a magical debit card. The owner stamps the receipt of whatever purchase he wishes to make and the payment is transferred to the merchant's account.
skatÃ¡: (SKAH-tah) Greek (n) Shit.
sou gia pÃ¡nta: (SOO yah PAHN-tah) Greek Forever thine.
the TsÃ¡i: (Sahee) Greek (n) Maker. The supreme ruler of the Zephyri. Eryx heads the Zephyri Council, bringing all Zephyri kingdoms under a unified rule.
Tweentown: (n) The magical city of the Zephyri that exist between dimensions and follows the night.
the Zephyri: (zeh-FEER-ee) A race of Â magical creatures, consisting of many species. The Zephyri nation includes four kingdoms; Fairy, Elf, Shifter and Vampire, which represent every creature known in legend.
the Zephyri Council: (n) The ruling council, representing all the kingdoms of the Zephyri. It's members include, Eryx-the TsÃ¡i, Ellarian-the Fairy Queen, Fenion-the Elf King, AadÃ Khanna-the Shifter Rajah and Baldr-the Vampire Regent.
Anthony Vincent Romano-
Title: NCS Collection Management Officer
Chevy's best friend
Species: gold fairy
Cheveyo Onida Singer- (Sheh-vay-oh)
Title: NCS Operations Officer
Alias: Chevy (Sheh-vee)
Kegan MacIntyre- (KEE-gan)
Title: Praetorian Guard
Alias: The Celt
Title: Dr. Faraday
Alias: The Butcher
Sophia Ulfer- (OOL-fehr)
Species: wolf shifter
Title: Trainee Praetorian Guard
AadÃ Khanna- (AH-dee KAH-nah)
Species: tiger shifter
Title: Shifter Rajah
Title: Vampire Regent
Species: gold fairy
Title: Fairy Queen
Species: light elf
Title: Elf King
Species: light elf
Alias: The Seer
Title: President of the USA
Title: British Prime Minister
Bram Ulfer- (BRAHM OOL-fer) *deceased*
Species: wolf shifter
Title: SWAT Lieutenant
Species: tiger shifter
Title: AadÃâs nephew
Chaytan Singer- (SHAY-tahn) *deceased*
Alias: Joseph Singer
Title: The Antechamber Greeter
Title: Doorman for Chevyâs building
Title: Solicitor for the 9th Judicial Circuit Court
Title: Charleston Sherriff
Title: Tweentown Shopkeeper
Layla Romano- *deceased*
Tony Romanoâs wife
Magnus Blackthorne- (MAG-nuhs)
Species: unknown shifter
Title: Rajahâs Chief Personal Guard
Malachai Romanus- (MAL-ahk-eye)
Title: Personal aide to Baldr
Species: dark elf
Title: Kingâs Chief Personal Guard
Ritgir Blackfist- (RIHT-guhr)
Title: Tweentown Banker
SWAT team member
Title: Mayor of Charleston, SC
Tokori Singer- (Toh-KOH-ree) *deceased*
Alias: Nada Honanie
Title: Director of the FBI
July 18, 2001 - The Farm
Daddyâs words echoed in my head as my knees shuffled along the carpet. âMake sure you crawl on the floor, sweetie. Most people die of smoke inhalation, not the flames. Meet us by the big pine tree. Do not go looking for us, if thereâs a fire; just get out. Okay?â
âOkay, daddy. Iâll remember.â
I was a good girl. I felt the door before I opened it and the clean, cool air soothed my burning lungs. It was difficult to see through the tears but I managed to make it down the steps and stumble toward the tree. In my rush, I tripped over my nightgown and landed hard on the packed dirt, scraping my hands. Daddy would be ashamed; you must always be aware of your situation and surroundings. Hiking up my skirt, I ran the rest of the way and turned to look for mommy and daddy.
Wiping my eyes, I saw flames engulfed the entire house. Where were they? Their bedroom window exploded and I jumped. I couldnât see them anywhere. I should go look but daddy said no.
As loud as my lungs would allow, I yelled, âMommy? Daddy? Where are you?â
A long blood-chilling chorus of screams answered me. Holding my hands over my ears, I tried to shut out the sound. It wouldnât stop. I wanted it to stop. Please, someone make it stop.
It hurt so bad. I shrieked and wailed but they wouldnât stop. Why wouldnât they stop? They hated me; I could feel it. I was strapped to the bed; arms, legs and head held immobile by thick leather. Four men in white surrounded me and a man straddled my chest. I couldnât move, as he pushed a giant needle into my temple. What did they want? They wouldnât tell me. I was helpless against them and the pain. Screaming myself hoarse, I screeched, until nothing escaped but air.
âWake up child. You are dreaming. Wake up. Itâs all right now. I have you. Youâre safe.â
Pity overwhelmed me, as I opened my eyes. âJohn?â
âYes, itâs me child. Youâre home. Youâre safe.â
My nightgown was soaked in sweat and I sat in his lap. Trembling, I told myself everything was all right and tried to forget. John said I didnât have to worry about those people hurting me anymore. He saved me. He would take care of me and teach me how to defend myself. I would never be helpless again. Laying my head on his chest, I inhaled the familiar scent of arthritis ointment and cologne.
âDoes this happen often?â
The strangerâs voice jerked my head around and I glared at him. He was the biggest man I had seen since my father died. A little on the scruffy side, his hair was wavy black and he hadnât shaved in a few days. His eyes were brown and he looked mad.
Nodding, John answered. âYes, every night. She barely sleeps at all.â
Snapping at John, I said, âWho is he? Why is he here?â
âThis is Tony, child. Heâs going to be staying with us for a while.â
âI donât like him. Send him away.â
Lifting an eyebrow at me, Tony said, âIâll grow on you.â
âThatâs what Iâm afraid of.â
âYou have a smart mouth for a runt.â
Scowling at him, I said, âIâm not a runt. Iâm tall for my age.â
âIs that right?â
âYeah. Iâm only ten. You look old though.â
âYou need your eyes checked kid. Iâm twenty-four.â
âLike I said, ancient. Practically on your deathbed.â
Folding his arms across his chest he said, âI donât know, John. I donât think this will work.â
Waving away the objection, John said, âDonât worry, sheâll warm up to you after a while.â
âI will not! Heâs an asshole. Get him out of here.â
âYoung lady, I have told you about that language.â
Pouting, I mumbled, âSorry.â
âApologize to Tony.â
âYou know why.â
âIâm sorry youâre an asshole, Tony.â
Setting me back on the bed, John said, âI think you have recovered from your nightmare. You are restricted to your room for a week.â
âYouâre grounding me?â
âDonât sound so surprised. That is what happens when you donât behave as a lady should.â
Tony asked, âDoes she ever get out?â
Grumbling, I asked, âWhere are you taking me?â
Tony said, âWeâre going to play a game.â
âItâs the middle of the night. How are we going to play anything in the dark?â
Rolling my eyes, I said, âJeez, what a dumbass. You canât play that in the dark.â
âWatch your mouth, runt or I'll tell John.â
âI told you, Iâm not a runt. Quit calling me that.â
âIâll stop calling you runt, when you stop calling me names.â
âIf thatâs the deal, runt is fine.â
âOn second thought, I think brat suits you better.â
Mumbling under my breath, I said, âWhatever, geezer.â
âYou must like staying in your room.â
âWhereâs John, anyway? I havenât seen him since last night.â
Freezing in my tracks, I asked, âFor how long?â
Puzzled by my reaction, Tony said, âIâm not sure. Probably about a month.â
âHe left me alone?â
âThe Farm has plenty of people, you wonât be by yourself.â
âThey donât like me. He didnât even say goodbye.â
âAww, come on. A sweet kid like you? Whatâs not to love?â
Tears ran down my cheeks before I could stop them. Humiliated, I ran into the forest. Weaving through the trees as my father taught me, I found a log leaning against a large oak and crawled into the shelter. Pulling my knees to my chest, I covered myself with my hair and tried to disappear.
I would run away. No one would miss me. They didnât care. I was alone. John was the one person that liked me and now he was gone too. I would find a cave in the mountains and live there alone. It would be better than being surrounded by people that hated me. I knew how to hunt and fish; I could make my own clothes and beâhappy. Sobs wracked my chest and I couldnât hold them back.
A twig snapped. Scuttling through the leaves, I tried to escape. A large hand held my leg tight. Kicking and thrashing, they reeled me in and I lashed out. My fist connected with a hard jaw and a deep voice cried out in pain but he didnât let go.
âDamn it! Cut it out. Iâm not going to hurt you, brat.â
âYeah. Who were you expecting?â
Caught, all the fight left me and he pulled me into his lap. Tucking me under his chin, he stroked my hair and back. âIâm sorry. What I said was mean. You didnât deserve that.â
Sniffling into his chest, I said, âYes I did. Iâm bad.â
âNo youâre not. Youâre just angry.â
âNo. You donât know. I am bad. Thatâs why everyone hates me. They know what I did, what I am.â
âWhat are you?â
âWhere the heck did you get an idea like that?â
âThey told me at the lab. They said it was my fault that my parents were dead. I set the house on fire because I'm a demon from hell. I killed them.â
Fury swamped me and he pulled me away from his chest. Shaking me by the shoulders, he said, âDonât you EVER say that again! You were not responsible for your parentsâ death. I read the file; it was faulty wiring. It was an accident. You are not a monster; youâre a special girl and your parents loved you.â
âHow do you know they did?â
Pulling me into his arms, he said, âBecause, if I had a daughter like you, I would cherish her for the rest of my life.â
âYes. Youâre cute, in a Chucky sort of way.â
âNever mind. My face is killing me. What did you crack me with?â
Working his jaw, he said, âFuckinâ A. You pack one hell of a punch.â
Dropping my eyes, I said, âIâm sorry.â I was a freak; too big, too strong, gawky and hideous.
Lifting my chin, Tony said, âHey. You should be proud of yourself. You kicked my ass and I was a SEAL.â
âYouâre a selkie?â
âWhatâs a selkie?â
âA person that can change into a seal.â
Laughing, he said, âNo, thatâs a myth. Things like that donât exist.â
âMy daddy said they did.â
âHe was pulling your leg. Kids like those kinds of stories.â
Disappointed, I said, âOh.â I would have liked to meet one.
Tony asked, âDo you forgive me for being mean to you?â
âI guess so. I wasnât very nice to you either.â
âDo you feel like playing our game now?â
âHow are we going to play in the dark?â
âIâll hide and you use your other senses to find me.â
âYou really want me to?â
âYes. You donât have to hide what you are from me, brat.â
July 19, 2012 - Charleston, SC
âReady or not, here I come.â
Tony had been quiet but not silent. It was his age showing. At thirty-five, he was no spring chicken. Following his audible cues, I searched for signs of his passing. After a few minutes of fumbling around in the dark, I found his trail. The codger had knocked a piece of bark off a pine tree. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Deeper into the dark forest, I found more of his trail. I checked the time. I had an hour and thirty-three minutes left. The toe of his boot gave me a new direction but I lost him for a while after that. At least I didnât have to worry about the trees. They were too small. Hurricane Hugo had taken out much of the larger growth in the area, which limited the places he could hide. The brush was a damn nuisance though. âCome out; come out, wherever you are.â
Finding a shifted stone, I glanced at my watch again. I had an hour left. No sweat, he was mine. My phone vibrated. Knowing it was Tony, I debated whether to answer or not. We were on strict silent mode, so he may be testing me or he might have fallen and couldnât get up. Either way he wouldnât cheat. Adjusting my earbud, I answered the call and shoved the cell back in my pocket. âYeah, whatâs up?â
âI heard something. Iâm going to check it out.â
âWhat was it?â
âI donât know. Iâve never heard anything like it before. It was as if the ground groaned. I canât explain it any better than that.â
âOkay, the gameâs on hold. Want me to come to your position?â
âNah, itâs probably nothing and Iâm beating you. You arenât anywhere near me.â
Smirking at his false bravado, I said, âYou have no idea where I am.â
âNo, I donât but you obviously didnât hear what I did, so you canât be close. It was pretty loud.â
He was posturing, trying to psych me out. âThis could be classified as cheating, you know. The rules state that you canât move once your time is up.â
âI know, I know, Iâll just have a look and go back to my spot. You can monitor on the two-way until Iâm finished.â
âYouâre going to muck up the prints. How am I supposed to read your tracks, if you stomp all over them?â
âBad guys donât always leave a pristine trail for you to follow. Whatâs the matter? Canât you beat me in a real world scenario? I thought your daddy taught you all the injun ways.â
Jerk. âOh, right. Dream on old man. Make it quick. The sun will be up in two hours and I have an hour left.â
âActually, itâs more like fifty-seven minutes.â
âJust hurry up.â
âYeah, yeah. You stay put. Iâll let you know when Iâm back in position.â
I couldnât hear anything over the crickets, so I turned up the volume on my earpiece. Listening to Tonyâs breathing and the forest sounds, I waited five minutes, then ten. Impatient, I asked, âAre you there yet?â
Whispering, Tony answered, âAlmost. I hear people talking. Shh.â
âWell, thatâs stupid. They canât hear me.â
âNo, but I canât hear them with you yammering in my ear and they can hear me talking to you.â
âThen donât talk to me. Duh.â
Another five minutes passed before Tonyâs voice sounded over the two-way, âOh my God. What the hell is that?â
âWhat? What is it?â To hell with the game, I ran, using every trick at my disposal. Dropping the shield that I used to block my talent, I thrust my mind into the earth and felt my way through the labyrinth of trees and brush toward Tony. I sensed every blade of grass, leaf and animal in the area. More importantly, I could feel how Tony had affected them.
As I ran, Tony yelled, âDonât move!â He almost blew out my eardrum and I stumbled over a downed tree. Was he talking to me? As if I cared, he needed me. Making a quick adjustment to the volume, I was up and sprinting through the maze again.
A feminine voice purred, âWell, what have we here?â
Tonyâs response stunned me. He whispered in awe, âJesus, Mary and Joseph.â
Damn it, I needed to get there now. âTony, whatâs wrong? Whatâs going on?â
The woman said, âSearch him.â
Cloth brushed over the loop around Tonyâs neck, sounding loud in my ear. A manâs voice said, âHeâs wearing a transmitter loop. Thereâs someone else out here.â
âIt does not matter. They cannot find usâor him.â I heard a girlish giggle, as the call ended.
Shit! Not good. Not good at all. I still wasnât close enough to hear or feel them. My empathic power had a range of about fifty feet outdoors and using the earth amplified it to about a hundred and fifty feet. I had to be close. He couldnât be that far ahead of me. Tony and I had been playing Hide-and-Seek since I was ten and he had never beaten me. I could find him; I would find him. I trained eleven years for this. Now the game was real.
Crashing through the undergrowth, I pushed my talent to the limit. An old fear crept into my thoughts, breaking my concentration. Losing Tony was unacceptable; he was all I had left. You are not losing him! Come on; focus.
A few minutes later, I burst into a clearing. Nature held its breath while I gasped for mine. This was the place. Scanning the area in the bright moonlight, I searched for some evidence of whom I was dealing with. Discarded like garbage, in the center of the glade were Tonyâs smashed phone, transmitter loop and earbud. Snatching them off the ground, I took a closer look at the footprints left behind.
Four sets of prints tromped through the sandy soil. Tonyâs were immediately recognizable and another manâs size ten sneakers. Dainty soft cloth soles, like moccasins led north. Was she out in her pajamas? As odd as that was the last set of tracks stopped me cold. Did South Carolina have a Sasquatch? Over eighteen inches, the footprints sank deep into the soft dirt. Whoever made these tracks wasnât wearing shoes and it was no wonder. Where would you shop for feet that size? He must be over eight feet tall and weigh a ton.
Reading the sign, I determined the four people got into an off-road vehicle and drove away. Tony hadnât struggled or fought. Why? Were they armed? They had to be. He would never have given up and left willingly. The giant probably helped make up his mind though. Following the trail left by the all-terrain tires, I was able to move much faster.
Half of a mile later, I slid to a stop. They had turned onto a paved road and my path ended. Now what? I hoped this was a deserted area, at least at four in the morning. If not, I might be making a serious mistake and it may cost Tony his life.
Bowing my head, I stretched my mental tentacles through the earth in both directions. Natureâs tension faded after fifty feet to the left but to the right it remained constant to the end of my range. Right it is then. The thought that this was ridiculous flitted through my mind for an instant. They could be driving to Columbia or even Virginia for all I knew. Cross-country running came naturally to me but even I couldnât make it that far. Maybe I should go back for the bike. It was close to three miles back through the woods and I had no idea how far along the highway. Panic threatened, every second wasted might be life or death. Deep breath. Another. Logic dictated that I go back to where we stashed the cycles. No matter how far I had to go, transportation would help. My decision made, I spun to the left. My feet wouldnât move. I couldnât do it. Backtracking, even if it helped in the end was beyond me. Therefore, like an idiot, I ran down the pavement in the dark.
Minutes seemed like hours, as I raced to save Tony. What were they doing to him? Nothing. If they wanted to kill him, they would have left him in the clearing or I would have heard a shot. He was alive, I still had time. I should have gone back for the bike. Tony would have; he was always telling me I was too impulsive, too hotheaded. Distracted by my own thoughts and slapping footfalls, I almost missed it. Cheerful chirping surrounded me. They hadnât come this far. Alert now, I retraced my steps slower, scanning the roadsides. I was close, I had to be but there was nothing. Where had they gone? A quarter of a mile back, the insects were quiet. Pacing along the blacktop, I walked fifty feet more and stopped. This was the location but I couldnât find it. Closing my eyes, I searched. Catching a slight disturbance, I turned my head to follow it and opened my eyes. To my right, an inky black hole parted the tree line, almost invisible in the dark. Come out; come out, wherever you are.
Â Standing at the mouth of the entrance, I let my eyes adjust. Blanketed in a thick carpet of pine needles, two wheel ruts stretched into the darkness. An eerie hush made my skin crawl. The creatures of the night werenât quiet; they were gone. Nothing lived here but the moss covered trees. Grateful that I would not be running to the state capital, I jogged ahead cautiously. The smell of mulch and decay hung stagnant in the air, clogging my nostrils. Tree roots snagged my feet, sending me headlong into a marshy wallow beside the trail. Moron. My clothes were soaked and I shook off as much of the putrid debris as possible. Feeling like an ass, I decided that maybe a nice stroll through the creepy forest wasnât a bad idea.
Soft ambient light penetrated the gloom and I had hope. Unable to contain myself, I hurried ahead. A solid wooden gate blocked my path, flanked by an eight-foot brick wall. Locked and too high to climb, I didnât think anything but explosives was going to work. Walking the perimeter didnât offer another way inside but I did find the remains of a fallen tree near the wall. With the boost, I was able to make it to the top and sat there for a moment to survey the grounds.
At the front of the property stood a large plantation home, with several outbuildings dotting the premises. Parked in the circular drive was a topless four-door, white Jeep and a black SUV, which was all the confirmation I needed. Hang on Tony; Iâm coming.
Sliding off the wall without a sound, I worked my way closer to the house. At times like this, I wished I were a telepath. Empathy is useful but situations such as these would be much easier if I knew what the bad guys were planning. Three people were inside on the first floor and none of them was Tony. The two men were anxious and trying to persuade the female of something. They werenât making much headway, if her bored, icy attitude meant anything. Engrossed in their conversation, I was sure they werenât going anywhere for a while. Time to find Tony.
Five structures were strewn across the back yard and didnât seem to be in any particular order. The first two I searched appeared to be old slave quarters and empty of all but their ghosts. A converted barn served as the garage and I couldnât make up my mind what the fourth building was in a former life. They all had one thing in commonâage. Tucked back against the rear wall of the property was a new, red, corrugated steel, pole shed that did not belong. Over fifty feet in length with no windows and a single door, I didnât think the owner kept the lawn mower and volleyball equipment inside it.
Sending out my feelers, I found six people in residence and Tony was one of them. Yay me! It was strange though, he was there and I couldnât sense any physical damage or pain but he wasnât all right. He felt dead inside, no emotions whatsoever. If they drugged him that would explain a lot, but not how he felt orâdidnât feel. His normal persona was missing or muted somehow, he was a shell. Almost all the other occupants were in the same condition, except for a girl near Tonyâs location. From what I could tell, she was younger than the others and her emotions were intact. Heart-rending sadness and terror poured off her in waves. Confused, I put that aside for the moment and went for the door, praying that it was not locked.
Rushing through the door, I closed it, as quick as I could and leaned against it. Black as pitch, I sensed no one else in the room but couldnât help drawing my Beretta. Single-handed, I groped for the light switch and blinked to clear my vision. As expected, I was alone. It was just an empty office, a desk, chair and couch. On the desk, stood a cheerful vase of yellow Jonquils. Breathing a sigh of relief, I didnât waste any more time and went to the next door. Reaching around the doorframe, I turned on the light before entering. Thankfully, I didnât have to do it in the dark this time.
As the door banged against the wall, the pungent scent of antiseptic assaulted my nose, making my stomach knot. Ugh, I hate that smell. Nothing good ever came with it. The anticipated echo from the door fell flat. The building was sound proofed. Why did they need sound proofing? Scanning the room began to answer my question.
Opposite the entrance, stood a floor to ceiling shelf filled with specimen jars. Hearts, kidneys, livers, eyes and one even had the mutated head of some poor soul. An autopsy table, measuring about ten feet long, dominated the room and I began to understand the terror the girl felt. What the hell was this? Drawers, microscopes, machines and equipment that I didnât recognize lined the cabinets. In the corner stood a commercial size freezer door and I didnât want to know what they kept inside it. A phone and a large ring of keys hung from the wall. My vision blurred for a moment.
âNo! No more needles.â Arms and legs strapped to the metal table, I couldnât move, couldnât escape.
âHold still. This wonât hurtâmuch.â
Defending myself in the only way left, I projected my fear into the three doctors holding me. A smug smile quirked my lips at the sight of them running for the door. There, that would make them leave me aloneâuntil next time. Angry tears scalded my skin, as I stared unseeing at the ceiling.
Overcome with a sense of urgency, I grabbed the keys and opened the next door. Bright and sterile, it was a long white hall with four numbered doors on either side. Each one had a small window at eye level and a steel handle. Flipping through the keys, I found eight numbered keys corresponding to the doors. Wonderful, organized psychos.
Looking through the window of cell number one, I had to stare for a moment to make sense of what I saw. Standing frozen in the center of the small room was a bipedal creature about three feet tall, muscular, with blackish-green skin. Large pointy ears protruded up from the sides of its bald head. Surgical staples circled itâs skull like a silver crown and sharp claws tipped each of its four fingers and toes. The word that sprang to mind was demon. A stitched Y-incision extended from collarbones to groin. Were they genetically engineering monsters or sewing them together like rag dolls? Reaching out with my mind, I discovered he had no reaction to my presence. The demonâs emotions were like Tonyâs but I didnât think letting it out was a smart move.
I did not want to see what else they were cooking up. Steeling myself, I looked through the porthole. I must have been in shock because when I peered through the pane, I thought, so thatâs a Sasquatch. Repulsive beyond imagining, he was at least nine feet tall and massive. Small nostrils rested between tiny, deep-set eyes, shadowed by a thick brow ridge. Corded muscles fastened his head to his shoulders. Contrary to the reported sightings, this Big Foot was not as hairy. Wearing only bracers and a loin cloth, patches of sleek red fur covered his shoulders, back and chest but fish-belly white skin showed on his legs and arms. The size of the creature made me notice that the ceilings were ten feet tall but the walls six by eight feet. He wouldnât be able to lie down, which wouldnât matter because they didnât have beds or even a pallet. The only fixture added to the rooms was a toilet in the corner. Pitying the brute, I thought about opening the door. A great sigh heaved his massive chest, scaring the shit out of me and I took two steps back. Was he awake? Double-checking, I found he was still unresponsive. I was not unlocking that door.
Number three and four were empty, which was goodâI think. Had there been people in them before? Possibilities bombarded my mind and I fought them off, trying to concentrate on my task.
Horrified by the contents of cell number five, I gagged, slapping a hand over my mouth. Large square patches of skin were cut from his chest, arms and legs. One eye was missing and he stared through the open socket into space. Charred black burns covered half of his body and the rest was gray from blood loss. He was emaciated to the point that he resembled a walking corpse. His ability to continue stand was mystifying. How could anyone do something like this to a human being or any creature for that matter? Unlatching the door, I hurried inside. The smell was gut wrenching. Touching his cold skin, I checked for a pulse. A dead man wouldnât be standing but... Thump. I breathed again. He was aliveâfor now.
Another man, at least I thought it was a man, stood mute like the others but he appeared to be merged with a cat. Rounded tiger ears peaked out of brown human hair, long razor sharp claws grew from human fingers and tufts of striped fur sprang sporadically from his tan skin. If he woke up, I did not want him sneaking up on me, so I left this one locked as well.
As I approached the end of the row of doors, overwhelming fear and despair thickened the air. I didnât look before opening the door. Charging across the threshold, I froze mid-step. Where was the girl? The room was empty but there had to be someone here. I had never been wrong before. Something flew at my face and I ducked. Spinning and drawing my weapon, I tried to get a bead on it. Zipping through the air like a hummingbird was the biggest bug I had ever seen. It was hard to see any detail with it zooming around the room but it was red and had six, stick-like legs hanging below, similar to a giant wasp. Diving at my head again, it growled. What the hell? Bugs donât growl. With nothing to lose, I threw reason out the window. âHey, hey! Iâm here to help. Knock it off!â
Abruptly, it stopped mid-air and tilted its little head. Light dawned, as I realized this was my girl. Could she understand me? The double set of wings blurred while she hovered, studying me. Getting a better look at her, I found that two of the legs were arms with little four fingered hands. Her torso resembled a humanâs; with ribs, collarbones and neck but that was where the likeness ended. Two glossy black beads stared, while an almost invisible slit turned down in a frown. Subtle at first, her red coloring faded to gray and a tiny voice said, âWho are you?â
Many times, I have read the word poleaxed but never had a true understanding of what it meant until that moment. Jaw slack, I stared dumbfounded at the insect suspended in front of my face.
Speaking in exaggerated, slow speech she repeated, âI said, who are you?â
âI donât get it. How can a bug speak?â
Flushing red again she said, âI am NOT a bug. Iâm a pixie. Now, I asked you a question, human. Please do me the courtesy of answering it.â
Unbelievable. I wet my dry lips and tried to gather my wits. âSorry, uh, my name is Cheveyo.â
âThatâs better. My name is Alida. Why are you here, Cheveyo?â
Alidaâs pigment changed to purple and blue. âI thought pixies looked more umâhuman.â
âYouâre thinking of fairies.â
âWhatâs the difference?â
âDidnât we cover this? Fairies look like small humans with wings. Pixies look like me. Now, why are you here?â
âOh!â Jolted out of my stupor, I hurried over to the last cell and unlocked the door. Heart pounding, I shook him saying, âTony! Tony, look at me!â Nothing. He couldnât hear me. Examining him showed no obvious injuries or, God forbid, surgeries. Relieved, I grabbed his arm and led him toward the door. Responding to the force of my pull, his body moved automatically. When I crossed the threshold, he froze in place and refused to move another step. Okay, thereâs more than one way to skin a cat. Bending at the waist, I pulled him over my shoulders in a firefighterâs carry and straightened. Damn. Itâs time to lay off the burgers, buddy. Adjusting his weight, so that it was more comfortable, I took the last step out the door. Panic flooded my mind, as he came alive. Thrashing until I dropped him, he scuttled back into the cell, calm and dead as before. What had they done to him? How was I going to get him out if he fought me? I could try to knock him unconscious but what about going over the wall and the hike back to our cycles? For that matter, how would I keep him on the bike? What was I going to do? I couldnât leave all these creatures here to suffer. All of them needed medical attention, including Tony. If he wasnât out of it, he could call our bosses. We worked for the National Clandestine Service, a branch of the CIA, but Tony was the Collection Management Officer and I had no way of contacting anyone. It might seem strange but with my power, they were afraid that without a buffer between us I could discover classified information. It might be dangerous for everyone. In this situation though... What I needed was help. Alida wouldnât be able to do much. I didnât have any other choice.
My mind made up, I went out into the corridor. Alida was banging her little fist on the door where the demon was being held. âGus! Gus, can you hear me?â
Seriously? His name was Gus?
Noticing me, she turned and asked, âWhy didnât you unlock this one too?â
Stammering, I said, âI, well, I umâdidnât think it was a good idea at the time. I take it heâs a friend of yours.â
âOf course he is. Theyâre all my friends.â
âHow can you be friends with a demon?â
âDemon? He isnât a demon, you idiot! Heâs a goblin and before you ask, he does not live or work in hell. Ugh, humans. Just open the doors. All of them!â
She had turned fire engine red again. I think I might have made her mad. Not wanting to argue, I did as she said before going into the lab.
Hoping with all my heart that the people at the house stayed put, I dialed 911 from the landline.
â911, what is your emergency?â
âA hostage situation.â
âAre you one of the hostages?â
âNo maâam. I discovered five of them, when my friend was abducted and I went after him.â
âCheveyo Singer, maâam.â
âOkay, Ms. Singer can you give me the address?â
âNo, Iâm sorry, I canât. Itâs a big plantation house at the end of a long drive off highway 41. Weâre in one of the outbuildings at the back of the property. Itâs surrounded by a big brick wall with a gate at the front.â
âThatâs all right. We have your location on GPS. Do you know how many assailants are involved or their identities?â
âI donât know who they are but there are three people in the main house; two men and a woman. I think this line is connected to the one in the house, so if we get cut off, please donât call back.â
âNo problem. Weâll just hope we arenât disconnected. I have alerted SWAT and the Sheriff is on the way. Are the suspects armed?â
âI donât know. Probably.â
Are there any injuries?â
âYes maâam. All five victims are catatonic and have been tortured. I have no idea what was done to them but itâs horrible.â
âDeputies and EMTâs should be there in a few minutes.â
âThe people in the house donât know Iâm here and Iâd like to keep it that way.â
âThat wonât be a problem, Ms. Singer. They are coming in silent with lights off.â
âGood, thatâs good. Iâll be glad to see them. Uh, Iâm armed and not real keen on laying down my weapon until its safe. Could you tell them not to shoot me when they get here?â
Snickering, the dispatcher said, âSure. What do you look like?â
âNative American, six feet tall, long black hair and green eyes. Iâm wearing black jeans, a black tank and boots.â A gasp made me turn. Alida hovered in place shaking her head and turning yellow. Frowning, I mouthed, âWhat?â
She didnât answer but zipped over to the phone and pressed the receiver button. âWhy did you hang up? That was the police, theyâre on their way.â
âI know who it was. You shouldnât have done that. Oh, no. This is bad.â
âWhy, whatâs wrong?â
âWe canât be found by humans.â
Making a wry face, I said, âWell, Iâd say itâs a little late for that, donât you think? Besides, I told them there were five of you. I didnât think you would want to go to the hospital and get poked and prodded, since youâre fine. Youâre okay, right?â
Trembling, she said, âOh, no, no, no. This is a disaster. Theyâll kill you.â
âWhat? Whoâs going to kill me?â
âThe Praetorian. Oh, what are we going to do?â
âSimmer down, Alida. Nobody is going to kill me. I can take care of myself. Why would these Praetorian want me dead, anyway?â
âFor exposing us to humans.â
âWell, what was I supposed to do? We canât move them and there is still the small matter of your captors. We needed help; now, we have it.â
âI can get help. You shouldnât have called the police.â
Frustrated, I said, âWhere? Weâre in the middle of nowhere and this is somewhat time sensitive.â
âI could have had half the Zephyri nation here within fifteen minutes. It doesnât matter now.â She wrung her tiny hands.
âYou neglected to mention that before.â
Struggling with the unfamiliar word, I said, âWho are the Zeh-feer-ee?â
Motioning toward the prisonerâs cells, she ignored my pronunciation, âWe all are. Pixies, goblins, vampires, shifters, elves and many more.â
âWait. I thought that the people here created you. You mean...â
âZephyri are all the creatures of legend. We were captured by these humans. I was locked in that cell for two days.â
âHow did they catch you? It canât be easy to trap a pixie.â
âItâs not. I was hitching a ride on my friend Gus. For some reason he fell over on top of me. I must have been knocked out and when I woke up, here I was.â
âWhy havenât they done anything to you yet?â
Shaking her head, she said, âI donât know. No one even came to check on me. I never saw anyone and it is hard to hear anything in here. Once I heard Malachai scream but that was all.â
âLet me guess, Malachai is the guy with the burns.â
âYes. What they did to him is dreadful.â
âI know. Iâm sorry, Alida. At least youâre out now. No more worries, right?â
âNot for me but yours are just beginning, I think.â
âLook, not to brag but Iâm no slouch when it comes to self-preservation. Everything will be fine, youâll see.â
Unconvinced, Alida said, âI hope youâre right.â
âSure I am. The doctors will fix up Tony and your friends. These Praetorian will see I was trying to help. They canât hold that against me.â
Still not persuaded, she gave me a sad look and nodded.
âI should take a look outside to see if the cavalry is here yet. I donât know how long it will take them to show up but you might want to leave before they do.â
âYouâre right. What a mess. I had better tell somebody at home. Maybe the TsÃ¡i can fix this.â
âHeâs our leader and the most powerful being in the world. Heâll know what to do.â
Yeah, sure. âOkay, sounds like a plan.â
Alida asked, âWill you open the door for me?â
âNo problem. Listen, Alidaâbe careful, okay?â
Nodding, she said, âYou too. The Praetorian are scary, Cheveyo. Iâm afraid for you.â
âDonât be. Iâll be fine.â
We moved through the office and I peeked out the door to see what was happening. Apparently, the soundproofing was exceptional because a lot had changed and we didnât hear a thing. The front gate stood open and armed men in black were advancing on the house. Coast clear, I waved Alida out and she disappeared over the edge of the roof.
Another group of SWAT team members worked their way toward the lab, securing each building they passed. Not wanting to startle the big men with big guns, I swung the door open wide and clasped my hands over my head. Taking a single step out the door, I stood and waited for them to finish their search. A loud crash and men yelling made me jump; then my shoulders dropped an inch in relief. They had taken the house. Those bastards were going to jail for a long, long time.
Approaching from every direction, six SWAT officers converged, weapons held steady and ready. One stepped forward and asked, âName?â
The leader jerked his head in my direction; one of the six came forward cautiously, patting me down. Finding my Beretta, he circled around to my back. Never thrilled with anyone standing behind me, I was nervous but couldnât do a thing about it.
Drawing my attention away from the guy behind me, the first officer said, âAre you the one that invited us to this little shindig?â
I didnât appreciate his cavalier attitude. âYes sir. I hope I didnât interrupt your beauty sleep, sir.â
Smirking, he said, âThe nameâs Bubba. Whatâs a pretty girl like you doing carrying around hardware like that?â
He was yanking my chain. âYour mother actually named you Bubba? Didnât she like you?â
Breaking into a shit-eating grin, Bubba said, âNaw, these guys did but you shouldnât pick fights with the policeâCheveyo.â
âThanks for the tip.â
âAny time. Iâd like an answer to my question though. What are you doing out here in the middle of the night, running around with a 9mm?â
Reciting my cover story, I said, âIâm FBI.â Eyebrows rose at my statement. âMy partner, Tony Romano and I were out in the forest, uh running scenarios. He called me and said he heard something. When he got to the scene, they abducted him. I heard the whole thing and went after him.â
âDo you have any ID on you?â
Fishing out my wallet, I flipped it open to reveal my bogus FBI identification.
âOkay. Any hostiles inside?â
âNo but the victims wonât leave their cells.â
âYouâll see. I tried to carry Tony out and he freaked. He scrambled back in as fast as he could. Other than that, none of them reacts to anything. Theyâre catatonic.â
âOkay, thanks Singer. Weâll take it from here.â
âOne more thing, Bubba.â
âYeah, whatâs that?â
âWhen you see themâremember theyâre people; living, breathing people.â
Brow furrowed, Bubba said, âWhat arenât you telling me, Singer?â
Pulling my hands down, I shook my head. âJust remember what I said. Can I have my weapon back?â
âNot yet. Stay put, while we secure the building. Sawyer, stay with Agent Singer.â
Sawyer remained at my back and I watched as they entered the little shop of horrors. It took ten minutes for Bubba to come out. Revulsion clear on his face, he was stark white.
âSawyer, get the EMTâs in here.â
Something in his voice or maybe his expression must have spooked Sawyer. âYou okay, Bubba?â
âYeah, go on.â
Once he was gone, Bubba said, âWhat the hell are they, Singer?â
Silent for a long minute, he said, âHow are we gonna get the big one in an ambulance? Hell, how are we even gonna get him out the door?â
âNo clue. Why do you think I called you guys? I didnât know what to do either. Did you bring a doc?â
âGood. I think theyâll have to tranquilize them for transport, especially the big one.â
âHere they come.â
Carrying two stretchers over the soft ground, four paramedics and a doctor rushed toward us. Picturing Sasquatch, I didnât think they brought enough people. Bubba escorted them inside, leaving me alone for a few minutes.
What had they done to Tony in such a short amount of time? It couldnât have been more than an hour before I arrived. If it was a drug, would it wear off? Had I found him, only to lose him again? Familiar boots followed a uniform out the door. They had managed to get Tony onto a gurney. As his face rolled into view, I saw he was sleeping. Smiling, I closed my eyes and relaxed a fraction more. He would be all right; he had to be.
âOh, watch him Mike!â
Eyes snapping open, I watched the second pair of paramedics wrestling another litter through the door.
âShit! Heâs gonna push it over.â
Poor Malachai thrashed uselessly against the straps holding him to the stretcher. Unable to speak, his whole body screamed for him and fear filled his mind. Iâm sorry.
âHey doc, you wanna give him another shot? Maybe two?â
Grim faced, the doctor came forward. âI want to get my hands on the son-of-a-bitch that did this.â Injecting a sedative into Malachai, he calmed almost immediately. âWe have to get him to the hospital, stat. If I give him any more, it might kill him.â
Concerned, I asked, âAre they going to be okay?â
âAre you a friend or relative?â
âTony,â I said pointing to him, âis a friend. I found them.â
âYouâre friend should be all right. This man, I donât know. I donât even know how his heart keeps beating. Thereâs hardly any blood left in him and the wounds he has... Everything in my experience says he should be dead. And then thereâs this.â Pulling back Malachaiâs upper lip, the doctor revealed a pair of inch long fangs where his incisors should have been.
Had Alida said vampires were included in the Zephyri? She said they were all her friends; she had named him. Why had I continued to assume he was human? Maybe because I still didnât believe any of this was real. My father claimed that all the monsters in stories existed but grown-ups didnât believe in fairy tales. He was just teasing a child. Wasnât he? If that was true, why did he name me after one?
The doctor continued, âNow, Iâm not a fanciful man but this will make anyone wonder.â Shaking his head, he said, âWe have to hurry. Are you riding along?â
âUh, no. I have to retrieve my bike but Iâll be at the hospital as soon as I can.â
A quick nod and they pushed past me toward the gate.
Swinging my head around, I noticed Bubba had come out of the lab. âYou okay, Singer?â
âI dunno; you look a little lost.â
âIâm fine. Can somebody give me a ride to my cycle?â
Studying my face for a moment he said, âYouâll have to go down to the station to make a statement later today but we can live without Sawyer for a few minutes. I assume itâs nearby?â
âAbout three miles south.â
âHow did you get here?â
Shrugging, I said, âI ran.â
âThrough the woods? In the dark?â
Kicking a stone across the ground was my answer.
âDamn, girl. No wonder youâre such a mess.â
Self-conscious, I glanced at my hands and saw they were filthy. Now that I was aware of my appearance, another question occurred to me. What was that stench?
âYeah, itâs you.â
Embarrassed, my eyes flicked to Bubba and I said, âWhatâs me?â
âThe smell. What did you get into?â
Mumbling, I said, âI fell in a puddle or something in the driveway.â
âOr something is right.â His chuckling was drowned out by a loud shriek and we both turned to see the pole shed shudder.
Sprinting for the rear of the building, we were in time to see a huge arm punch through the steel shell. The arm darted back inside for a moment and the wall split open in a ragged line. Sasquatch stepped through, stopping for a few seconds to examine the wall surrounding the property. Turning sideways, he braced his arm and rammed the bricks with his shoulder. Masonry exploded, as he broke through with a grunt. From the other side, I could hear the sound Tony had described. A low rumbling vibration that sounded as if the earth groaned. Trotting over to the rubble, Bubba and I stood gawking as the giant strode into the forest.
Radio in hand, Bubba said, âI need a team outside the wall, southeast side. The big guy just flew the coop.â
Glaring at him, I folded my arms across my chest.
Bubba said, âHey, we canât let that thing run around loose.â
Unmoved, I didnât say a word. He had forgotten what I told him. They were people; living, breathing people. I understood what he thought but it wasnât right. To him, this was Frankensteinâs lab and Sasquatch was the monster he created. Unable to correct them without revealing what else I knew, I was stuck. Maybe Alida got the help that she mentioned.
Black clad men shot into the forest and I couldnât watch. Besides, Tony was on his way to the hospital.
Bone tired, I walked to the main house, collecting Sawyer on the way. He said, âItâs gonna be fun trying to get out of here.â
âWhy, whatâs going on?â
âThe press is crawling all over the place. They had the road blocked for a while. We got them moved but theyâre going nuts. The evacuation of your friend and the other guy is probably all over the news by now. The doc is riding with them and coming back for the other two. I guess theyâre stable enough to wait.â
Great, my bosses were going to love this. Some Operations Officer I was turning out to be. Two weeks out of training and this is what happens. Rounding the side of the house, it looked like a circus; three rings and I didnât know where to look first.
A deputy escorted a man in handcuffs to the back of his cruiser, which stood in front of the white Jeep. The black SUV was gone. Reporters yelled unintelligible questions at the pair, while the cop opened the door and sat the prisoner down. He looked normal. Isnât that what everyone says, when they find out their neighbor is a serial killer? Itâs true. Forty-five, five feet ten, brown hair, clean cut, he looked like someoneâs dad. Evil hides in the dark recesses of the heart. âWhoâs the psycho?â
âDr. Michael Faraday. Heâs the only one we found and wonât say a word about anybody else. His attorney is meeting him at the station.â
âFigures. Get me out of here, will ya?â
Pointing to a pickup parked on the other side of the yard, Sawyer said, âThatâs us.â
The crowd parted, allowing the Sheriffâs Deputy through with his charge. Surging back like the tide, they turned their ravenous eyes on us.
Amid the shouting, one voice sang out clear. âChevy, is this a CIA operation?â
My head on a swivel, I tried to locate the source of the question. It was an impossible task, in the sea of faces. Shit! How could anyone have found out who I was? And the nickname? Fuck, fuck, fuck. This was bad. The initials CIA rode through the rest of the journalists like a wave. I needed to get out of here, now. Ignoring the speculation and accusations hurled at me, I jumped in the truck and slumped in the seat. Could this day get any worse?
My chauffeur made it through the press line and onto the highway. âWhere to?â
âIâm not sure. Try the next left.â
Sulking and angry, I bit my lip, staring out at the dawning day. Sawyer rolled down his window for some air. A minute later, he powered mine down as well. Turning in the seat to face him, I dared him to say a word.
SWAT didnât hire wusses. âSorry Chevy. Itâs really bad.â
As Sawyer turned down the first available road, I recognized the area. âItâs up here on the left. Pull over next to those bushes.â
Cutting the engine, Sawyer walked me across the highway. Rounding the shrubs, I found our bikes safe.
âWhat are you gonna do with the other one?â
âI donât know. Weâll come back when Tony is better, I guess.â
Sawyer said, âIâll have impound pick it up.â
âThanks, Tony would be wicked pissed if something happened to it.â
Straddling my bike, I pulled on my jacket and sat, dropping the helmet into my lap.
âHey, can I have my Beretta back?â
âYeah, got it right here.â
The familiar weight was soothing on the best of days. With all that had happened in the last few hours, I needed all the reassurance I could get.
âIs that a Triumph Thunderbird?â
Smiling with pride, I said, âIt sure is. Her nameâs Delilah.â
âI know.â Pulling on my helmet, I turned the key. âThanks for the ride Sawyer. See ya.â
âNo offence but I hope not. At least, not on the job.â
Reactions from Bubba and Sawyer convinced me that I needed a shower in the worst way. The hospital and Tony could wait a few more minutes. Pulling into my complexâs parking lot, I almost turned around and went without the bath. Media vans, newscasters and gawkers crowded the entrance to my building. It just kept getting better. All I wanted was to crawl under the covers and hide. Putting on a blank face, I braved the big scary reporters.
Two steps and they were on me. âChevy, what happened out there?â
âChevy, what were those creatures?â
âChevy, what is the CIAâs involvement with Faraday? Do they routinely use monsters as operatives?â
Ugh, Chevy, Chevy, Chevy. I made it through the door and no one followed me. Why? I have no idea.
Behind the sign-in desk, Frank jumped to his feet. âMs. Singer, youâre home. Iâm glad youâre okay.â
Nodding toward the door, I said, âHow long have they been outside?â
Frank said, âI came in early when I saw the news. They were there when I got here at six. Wow, you never said you were a CIA agent. That is so cool.â
Looking down at his shoes, he said, âNo, I guess not. Listen, about last week, I hope I wasnât being too forward. I wanted to apologize if I made you uncomfortable.â
âItâs okay, Frank. I donât date anybody. Itâs not you.â
Beaming, he said, âThanks, Ms. Singer. Oh hey, your brother came in this morning. He was worried about you and with all the media outside; I thought it would be all right to let him into your apartment.â
âMy brother, huh?â
âYeah, Mitch. I found him up on the second floor. His key wasnât working. I know what a private person you are but heâs family and he had a key, so I figured it was okay.â
Glancing toward the elevator, I asked, âIs he still here?â
âI think so. I didnât see him leave. He said he would wait until you got back from the hospital.â
âHow did he know that I was going to the hospital?â
âWell, I expected that you would want to go see Mr. Romano.â
âYou told him I was going?â
âYeah, he asked when you would be back. I said that you were probably gonna be gone most of the morning with Mr. Romano laid up and all.â
âI see. Thank you Frank. If any more of my relatives come calling, make sure they stay in the lobby. Okay?â
Finally getting the idea that I wasn't happy, Frank said, âOh, okay. You ainât mad are ya? Did I screw up?â
âItâs all right Frank. Iâm going to talk to my brother now. Iâll see you later.â
âYes, maâam. Iâll be here. If you need anything, let me know.â
âIâll do that.â
Taking the elevator, I got out on three and walked down to my floor. Whoever was in my apartment wasnât my brother. Iâm an only child and both my parents are dead. It could just be an overzealous reporter but it was best to be sure.
Moving as quiet as possible, I sidled up to my apartment. This was a nice building, so sound didnât carry well but I might get lucky. With my ear to the door, I listened, while reaching out with my mind. Two men were inside and I didnât know either of them. Their minds were serious and business-like. Glass shattered and I wondered what they had broken. What were they doing and why were they here?
âJust curious, but what did she do, Dave?â
âShe saw or heard something she shouldnât have. Same ole, same ole.â
âWhatâd she see?â
âI donât know. They donât tell me stuff like that. If they did Iâd be dead too.â
âOh, right. Sheâs cute though. Itâs a shame. Do you think maybe we could play a little before we kill her?â
âNot this time. Itâs gotta look like a burglary. In and out. Anyway, sheâs not helpless, sheâd put up one hell of a fight.â
The conversation faded, as they moved into another room. Was this the Praetorian Alida mentioned? It didnât fit. The Praetorian would have a definite idea of why I was supposed to die. These guys were clueless. And if Alida had friends like vampires, Sasquatch and goblins, I didnât think sheâd be scared of these idiots. So who were they? What had I seen or heard? The one thing I had been a witness to was the horror at Faradayâs lab and that was all over the news. Nothing to hide there. Unless... Two people got away. Maybe one or both of them thought I knew who they were and didnât want to be exposed. The problem was I didnât know who they were or what they were planning. First things, first. What should I do about Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum?
Having a brawl with two assassins in my apartment was iffy. Killing one or both of them would bring in the police, exciting the press and my employers even more. It was a remote possibility that I might be hurt or die and that was unacceptable. Childhood memories gave me an idea. Heh, heh, this was going to be fun.
Glass tinkled as it fell to the floor. Throwing the fire alarm, I darted down the hall to the storage room. Doors opened, as the residents responded to the emergency. With all my strength, I reached out to Mitch and Dave, funneling fear and confusion into their minds. Hoping that my ploy worked, I peeked out to watch. Startled people hurried to the stairs. The assassins didnât make an appearance right away, so I opened the gates wider. Emotions bordering on abject terror, they broke and flung my door open. Shoving my neighbors aside, Mitch and Dave ran for the exit as if their pants were on fire. Bastards.
As I entered my apartment, the phone rang. Having a good idea who it was I answered right away. âYes?â
âMs. Singer, is that you?â
âYeah, itâs me. What can I do for you Frank?â
âWell, I donât know if you heard but thereâs a fire. You need to evacuate.â
âI know all about it. Can I trust you, Frank?â
âAbsolutely, with anything, Ms. Singer.â
âI know it wasnât nice but I tripped the fire alarm. I needed to get rid of my brother and couldnât think of any other way. Iâm sorry. I know this made your day more difficult but I didnât have another choice. Do you forgive me?â
âSure, I understand. Iâll let everyone know that it was an accident or some kids playing around. Youâre brotherâs that bad, huh?â
âYeah, so could you maybe wait until he and his friend leave before you tell anyone?â
âOh, there they go now. Damn! Excuse my French but they tore out of here like the devil was on their heels.â
âHe has arsonphobia.â
âHeâs got what?â
âHeâs terrified of fire.â
âWow, he sure is. Anyway, it wonât be a problem. Theyâre gone. They just jumped in a van.â
âGreat. Thanks a lot Frank.â
âAny time, Ms. Singer. Iâm real sorry that I let him in. I didnât know.â
âItâs all right. No more relatives though, okay?â
âNo maâam. Iâll just get everyone settled again.â
Positive that the duo wouldnât be back any time soon, I still put the chain on the door and tucked a chair under the knob. On my way to check the windows, I clicked on the television. Holy shit! The twenty-four hour news station was playing a clip of Sasquatchâs escape. How had they managed to get it on film? Taken after I left, the next video was of the extraction of the cat-man at the lab. Writhing on the gurney, he changed into a full-blown Siberian tiger and back into a man for the entire world to see. The doctor rushed to inject a sedative into his arm and the picture cut to one of me leaving the Faraday estate with Sawyer.
âAnd here is the woman responsible for these amazing discoveries. Cheveyo Oneida Singer is an operative for the National Clandestine Service and reported the crime when her partner Anthony Vincent Romano was abducted. The question on everyoneâs mind today is âwhat are these creatures and are they dangerous?â Dr. Herbert Anderson is with us to give his expert opinion. Doctor...â
âIn answer to your question, they are legendary beings of different species. They have existed alongside man for millennia; staying hidden for the most part. The first film you showed was of an ogre.â
âAn ogre? What are they? Where do they live?â
Nauseous, I turned off the set. What was I going to do? Someone wanted me dead. My best friend was in the hospital and might not recover. I found out that fairy tale creatures do exist and exposed them to the world. According to Alida, they wouldnât be very happy with me and would try to kill me. Who could blame them? They stayed hidden for thousands of years and in one night, I ruined it all. My picture was splashed all over the television, which meant my career was over before it began. My apartment was trashed and I stunk! What the hell was I going to do? Flopping down on the sofa, I chewed my nail with that mantra running circles in my head. I wanted to cry; this was awful. I wanted Tony. When I was upset, he always pulled me into his lap and rubbed my back until I felt better. He was my dad, brother and best friend all rolled into one. He would know what to do. He would... What would Tony do? Heâd say, âOne problem at a time, brat. Panicking never helped anything.â Taking a deep breath, I cleared my head. I needed to prioritize. What was the most urgent problem? My nose wrinkled. Shower and try to come up with a plan.
Running off Mitch and Dave was a temporary solution. Theyâd be back. The Praetorian hadnât made an appearance, so I couldnât deal with them. Nothing could be done about the media; therefore, it was best to ignore that one. Tony was in the hospital but he wasnât in danger. He would wake up or he wouldnât. Either way, I couldnât do a thing to help him. My heart gave a twinge at the thought but I squelched it ruthlessly. As the CO, Tony would have to wake up before I heard where my job stood. Depending on how long he was unconscious, the Agency might contact me but they hadnât yet. As I saw it, the immediate threat was whoever had hired Mitch and Dave. I needed to know who they were and I needed to know now.
Fresh and clean, I had an objective and course of action. Propping the security bar against the sliding door to the balcony, I closed it behind me and watched it fall into place. The apartment secured, I climbed down the tree near the deck and crept around the side of the building. The press was still camped out on my doorstep but with my hair down and different clothes, I hoped they wouldnât notice me. Shielding my face with loose hair, I searched for an imaginary lost item in my bag. Parked next to a news truck, I was careful getting into the car. Inside, I found my sunglasses and put them on before sitting up straight. Pausing, I checked to make sure that no one was watching. Phase 1 complete. Starting the Shelby, I pulled out of the lot slow and easy.
Phase 2 was to get into Faradayâs house and find information on his partners. The cops should be done in there by now. The focus would be on the lab, so getting inside shouldnât be too tough. Driving north of the estate this time, I found a place to stash my car and trekked through the forest again.
Bright and sunny, birds chirped cheerful songs, while I walked the quarter mile to the house. It was much more pleasant this time. Creeping up to the wall, I didnât make a sound as I stepped onto the log and peeked over the top. I couldnât see the lab but there wasnât much activity up front. Guards stood at the entrance to the property and a crime scene technician walked toward the backyard.
Spotting a side door, I dropped to the ground and ran crouched to the front porch. Hidden behind a bush, I searched the house with my ability. One man worked upstairs but that was it. Jumping the rail, I was across the porch and in the door before anyone noticed.
Good luck and fortune shined in my direction. I was in the study, which was the most probable place for information. Traipsing around the house wouldnât be necessary, if I found what I was looking for in here. The room smelled sweet, like flowers and I saw a vase of Daffodils on the coffee table. Faraday must be partial to them. Starting with the desk, I went through the drawers finding nothing except office supplies and a bottle of whiskey. A computer sat on the desktop ready for a login and password. The police must have started with the lab or they would have taken it. On the chance that Faraday was the trusting sort, I clicked login without success. Examining the good doctorâs collection of books, I found a journal stashed between two human physiology tomes. Flipping through the pages, I skimmed dozens of notes and sketches. One was titled Tweentown and depicted a medieval village surrounded by a wall. Some of the buildings had names above them.
âCheveyo! What are you doing here?â
With my heart in my throat, I swung around to face Alida. Whispering, I said, âDamn it, Alida, you scared the living shit out of me! Why did you come back?â
âI was curious.â
âThat is no reason to risk getting caught. Go home.â
âNo, I want to help.â
âThereâs nothing for you to help with.â
âWhat about the laptop?â
âWhat about it?â
âMaybe I can hack into it.â
Doubt riddled my voice. âYouâre a computer hacker.â
âWhy can I be a pixie but not a programmer?â
She had me there. Waving her toward the desk, I stepped back.
âCould you keep an eye out?â
Landing on the keyboard, she danced across the keys and the screen went blue. Shaking my head, I turned to the window. A big man wearing jeans and tank top strode across the grass toward the lab. He didnât look like a cop but maybe he was off duty. Dirty blond hair, tan skin and built like a professional wrestler, he stood well over six feet tall. In a word, he was yummy. As he passed another officer, I revised my estimate closer to seven feet. The cop didnât acknowledge him or even look in his direction. Odd.
Heading over to the desk, I saw Alida was logged into the computer. Now we were getting somewhere. âLetâs see what files he has.â
The documents folder held two hundred and thirty-three files. It was too many to read here but I might get lucky again. Alida made a strange squeak and I watched her disappear. Brows knitted, I said, âWhat the...â
âAh, Ms. Singer, what an unexpected surprise.â
Busted. Head turning horror movie slow, I pasted on my most endearing smile and faced the music. Grin drooping, I tried to figure out who they were. Obviously not the police, a man and woman both dressed in black leather, stood inside the door. About twenty, she was stern but pretty, five feet nine with dark hair and eyes. The man was about thirty, six feet three inches, two hundred forty pounds with brown hair and twinkling green eyes that were accustomed to getting their way.
Thinking these were my escapees, I straightened. This was great! No mysteries to solve, I had the culprits right here. Confident, I opted for a bold approach. âI donât think weâve been introduced.â
âNay, lass we havenât but we know who ye are.â
Scottish, that was different. âYou have my name. I think itâs only fair that I have yours.â
Nodding, he said, âAye, that would be fair.â Bowing from the waist and never taking his sparkling eyes from mine, he said, âKegan McIntyre, at yer service.â
Bent over as he was, I was able to see a broadsword strapped to his back. Neither of them were what I expected from Faradayâs cohorts. Extending mental fingers, I probed her first. Unlike the cold psyche I felt last night, she was angry and had been for a long time. Switching to Kegan I read arrogance, smug superiority and calculation on the surface but underneath was curiosity and attraction. That could be useful. Concentrating on him, I said, âNice to meet you Kegan.â
âThank ye, lass. Likewise. May I call ye Chevy?â
âYes, that would be fine.â
Mirth glittered in his eyes and a radiant smile spread across his features. Pulled in by his infectious good humor, my lips curved in response. âYer a breath of fresh air, lass.â
Glancing to his mouth as he spoke chilled my blood. Uh-oh. Pearl white fangs said these two werenât the ones I was trying to find. Somehow, I doubted Faraday would team up with a vampire. Attempting to regain my former confidence, I said, âSince you didnât come here for me and we are getting along so well, how about you let me go about my business and I let you get on with yours?â
âYer correct, I didnât come fer ye but I wouldnât be verra good at my job, if I passed up such a prime opportunity. I hope we can stay friends but my employer would like to speak to ye. Would ye do me the honor of accompanying me?â
Relaxed and pleasant, he seemed to be off guard but inside his brain was whirring. Oh and he was lying his ass off. Unwilling to take any chances, I drew my weapon, pointed it at him and said, âCan I ask you a question?â
Un-fazed, he answered, âAye.â
âHow can a vampire be out on a sunny day?â
âAh, tis a long tale indeed.â
Anticipating her attack, I was ready when the woman flew across the room, knocking the gun from my hands. I had no idea what she was but human didnât enter into it. She moved so fast that I had a hard time countering her, even with my empathic talent. Her strength was unbelievable. If I let even one strike land, I was dead meat. The longer I was able to evade her blows the more incensed she became and a low growl emanated from her chest. Focusing all of my attention on the woman, I forgot the other threat. Kegan must have stepped in because something took the legs out from under me and the next thing I knew, the angry woman had my face shoved into the floor. Arms pinned behind my back, I was helpless. Hearing Kegan approach, I thought they would kill me right there. How could anything move that fast? Launching an emotional attack, I threw everything I had at them. They didnât react. Great, now what? The woman hogtied my wrists and ankles. My hair covered my face, blinding me to my fate. She got up and left the room. Still struggling with my hair, I attempted to flip it out of the way but couldnât. When she took me down, I must have landed on top of it. This is why I never wore it loose when I worked. Wriggling, as if I were a fish on a line, I tried to roll over. Fuck! Creaking leather reminded me that Kegan was watching. Humiliation bloomed and I was glad he couldnât see my face.
âHold still.â With gentle hands, he shifted my weight from side to side, gathering my hair at the nape of my neck and knotted it. âBetter?â
Why was he being nice to me? He had me trussed up like a turkey, what else did he want? âYeah, thanks. I need to cut it off.â
âBite yer tongue. Tis glorious, lass. Ye should treasure it.â
Uncomfortable with the turn the conversation was taking, I averted my eyes and said, âThank you.â
âYer welcome.â Stroking a finger across my wrist, Kegan asked, âWhatâs this?â
Accustomed to its presence, it took me a few seconds to figure out that he was referring to my tattoo. It was called the Eye of the Phoenix and had been on my wrist since I was a baby. Two opposing arcs were joined in the middle and surrounded a reversed S-shape with a swirl in the center. The symbol represented balance, rebirth, immortality and the cycle of life, among other things. My parents had never explained why they did it, other than to say it was my special destiny. My voice heavy with sarcasm, I said, âA tattoo, what does it look like?â
âAye, I can see that. Itâs unusual. What do ye know of the symbol?â
âItâs a Phoenix Eye.â
Focusing his laughing eyes on mine, he said, âThe Phoenix is said to be the keeper of the fires of creation and the soul of Osiris. Are ye a child of the gods? â
âWhat on earth? Are you always this superstitious? Just because I have an Eye of the Phoenix tattoo doesn't mean anything.â
Â Studying my face for a moment, he said, âAll right lass, Iâll be direct. How were ye able to defend against Sophia?â
Puzzled, I frowned and said, âTraining; I donât understand. Sheâs fast and unnaturally strong but what are you really asking?â
âNay, her strength is natural and yers is exceptional fer a human but ye predicted her moves. Ye compensated fer yer lack of speed. How?â
Damn it. I did not need to lose my ace in the hole. It might work laterâI hoped. âGood genes?â
Deliberately misunderstanding me, he ogled my ass and said, âAye, they are that.â
Ugh, what an asshole. âCome on Kegan, let me go. No one needs to know you even saw me.â
âCanât you do some vampire mojo on her?â
I must have said something funny because he had a good long laugh. âNay, lass. If I could, I would have used it on ye instead.â
Oh, right. Scrambling for some other way to get out of my predicament, I came up with bupkis.
âYe donât need to be afraid. My employer just wants to speak with ye.â
He was lying but I wanted to believe him so much. âButter wouldnât melt in your mouth, Kegan.â
âIâm not familiar with the phrase.â
âIt means youâre a charming liar.â
For once, his face matched his emotions and it wasnât as satisfying as I imagined. Genuine hurt flashed in his eyes and I couldnât let it alone. âLook, I was trying to help your people. Iâm sorry about the press but how could I have known? Iâm not a threat to the Zephyri. If you let me go, I swear youâll never hear from me again.â
Caressing my cheek, he answered, âAye, I believe ye, Chevy. Some days I donât like my job verra much. Ye didnât mean any harm but I cannot let ye go.â He got to his feet and walked away.
Could we go back to the pretty lies? âWhat good does killing me do? The damage is done and I donât know much more than the general public. I saved them from that man. You didnât know where they were but I found them and got them out. How can you kill me for that?â
âI have done nothing yet. We are taking ye to speak with our employer. He will decide what to do with ye.â
Irritated with the whole situation, I said, âYou can drop the employer crap. Youâre talking about the TsÃ¡i. Use the name; Iâm too tired for all the tap dancing.â
Tense silence stretched on for two full minutes. âAnd where did ye get this information?â
This time it was my turn to keep quiet. Why couldnât I just shut my yap?
Sophia returned and it looked as if we were almost ready to go. Screaming like a banshee, I yelled, âHELP!â
She was on me before I took another breath, shoving a cloth into my mouth. As the bitch got up, she kicked me in the ribs.
Kegan said, âEnough Sophia. Take care of the evidence and I will handle our guest.â
Spewing venom, she said, âShe is a filthy human, how can you coddle her this way?â
âChevy is fighting fer her life, she does what she must. She does not deserve cruelty but respect.â
Growling, Sophia stomped over to the desk. As she picked up the laptop, it disappeared. Wow, that was handy. Did it cease to exist or did it go somewhere? Could she retrieve it the same way? Somehow, I didnât think she would tell meâif I could ask.
Stooped over me, Kegan loosened the tie that held my hands and feet together and I was able to lie down flat. Feeling like a pretzel, I rolled over onto my side, working out the kinks. If they let me walk, maybe I could get away. Sophia was fast but I might have a chance, if I did it right.
Shoving me over onto my back, Kegan picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. So much for that idea. Refusing to go without a fight, I squirmed and thrashed, trying to make him put me down.
Swatting me on the butt, he said âBehave.â
Resigned for the moment, I held still and waited for my opportunity. Opening the door, they stopped and Kegan said, âIâll meet ye in the clearing. Go.â
Peering under Keganâs arm, I watched her body melt down into a huge white wolf. None of the grotesque, bone popping seen in movies, accompanied the change. It wasâbeautiful, magical. Eyeing me for a second, Sophia turned and loped across the yard. Not slowing for an instant, she bounded over the wall in a single leap. Cool.
âNow lass, ye be still or I might drop ye.â
Drop me? Why would he... Oh boy. In my position, I had a birdâs eye view of his feet leaving the ground as he floated up and over the porch railing and the wall. With his shoulder in my stomach and the ground zooming by, getting sick was a real possibility. Flying upside down sucked, I donât recommend it at all. Upchucking all over the vampireâs back did have its appeal but Iâd choke with the gag in my mouth. Closing my eyes made my head spin and the nausea worse. I needed a fixed object to concentrate on, however, the only thing within view was Keganâs rear-end. Nice, as asses went, something was wrong with leering at the butt of the man that was going to execute you. Pride took a back seat to survival and I riveted my eyes to the vampireâs derriere.
I was afraid to look but it felt as if we were descending. A bump and step confirmed my suspicion. Looking ahead under my captorâs arm, I saw the human Sophia waiting for us. As we approached, she turned her back and said, âAnoigo.â It sounded as if she said, "A knee go," but that didn't make any sense. The air in front of her shimmered and she vanished. Keganâs pace steady, he walked into the shimmering air and everything went black.
Rapid-fire, I blinked and was able to restore my vision. We werenât in Kansas anymore or Charleston, for that matter. An open wooden gate made of twenty-five feet long wooden planks, bound by metal straps stood behind us. Beyond the gate was a void so black that you could cut it with a knife. To either side of the gate was a stone wall of the same height, which encompassed a medieval town. Swinging and twisting my dangling torso I was able to see cobblestone streets, shops and creatures of every size and shape, hurrying about their evening. Lampposts with glowing two-foot globes hanging from them, added to the full moonâs scant illumination.
Regardless of my position and uncertain fate, I had a million questions. Grunting and muffled pleas were ignored and I resolved to wait until Kegan took the rag out of my mouth. I had no doubt that Sophia would leave the damn thing in place until hell froze over. Left to my own speculation, I concluded that this must be the Tweentown that Faraday drew in his journal. Had he been here himself? No wonder there werenât more sightings of these creatures. I couldnât begin to guess at some of the species but others were easy. Elves, fairies, swarms of pixies, zombies and dwarves all roamed the village without fear.
âHello Kegan, Sophia. Who have you got there?â
Kegan stopped and Sophia answered, âA prisoner, Magnus. None of your concern.â
Peering around the vampireâs waist, I saw a handsome, pleasant looking man of about twenty-five with dark hair and eyes. He wore jeans and a T-shirt that read, Grr, Iâm a scary monster. Nice. At least he warned you.
Magnus said, âJust curious. Relax Sophia, no need to get your hackles up.â
Between the T-shirt and his comment, I couldnât help giggling and the bitch in question noticed the noise. She made a move to grab my hair and the vampire stepped out of reach so fast that it made me dizzy.
Kegan said, âNow, now, Sophia. None of that.â
Â âWhat does it matter? She is going to die anyway.â
âAye, why does it matter? And nothing in this world is certain.â
Magnus asked, âIs the other end as attractive as this one?â
Just when I was starting to like this guy, he had to go and turn into a jerk.
Sophia muttered, âTypical.â
âAye, she is, Magnus.â
I was not hanging here while these two discussed my butt like a roast. Shaking my whole body, I umphed at them, âPigs.â
âOoh and feisty too. Can I have her?â
âNay. This is Chevy Singer.â
âThatâs a shame.â
âAye. Excuse us, Magnus. We have to go.â
Leaving the street, Kegan strode up a walk to the largest mansion I had ever seen. Three stories high, it was horseshoe shaped with chimneys at every corner. Gargoyles lined the edge of the roof and I could have sworn I saw one move. Recalling the journal map, Faraday had named this building the Council Chambers.
As we approached the huge front door, it swung open automatically. âThank ye, Barmek.â
Huh? Craning my neck, I saw a creature closing the door behind us. Two and a half feet tall, he had a potbelly and skinny legs. His almost bald, squat head sported long pointy ears, large eyes and almost no nose. Racing ahead of us, Barmek opened another door. The fifteen-foot door and twenty feet tall ceilings couldnât be meant for him. Who lived here? Goliath?
Kegan never broke stride and descended a winding stone staircase. Damp, cool and dark, it looked like a dungeon. More of the light globes dotted the walls all the way down. Over the side of the stairs was a lightless pit that echoed every step. Deep within the earth, or wherever we were, it took five minutes to reach a circular cut stone platform. A human-size cage hung over the abyss and I prayed they wouldnât lock me inside it. Torture devices lined the walls and a rack took center stage. Heavy iron clacking drew my attention forward. Kegan unlocked a heavy metal door and took me inside the room.
Setting me down, I wobbled until he steadied me and released my feet. Untying my hands made my shoulders ache and I moaned.
âI apologize, lass; I know tis uncomfortable.â Reaching out with his big hands, he massaged my shoulders and upper arms until they felt better.
Pulling the gag out of my dry mouth, I said, âThank you.â
âYer welcome. I only wish I could do more.â
âHereâs what you can do. Let me go!â Making a dash for the open door was cut short, as Keganâs arm thrust out, catching me around the waist.
Standing outside the cell, Sophia said, âStop playing around Kegan.â
Eyes filled with pity and remorse, he set me on my feet, stepping back. âYe will remain here until we come back to get ye.â
âFor how long?â
âI donât know. Whenever the TsÃ¡i calls fer ye.â
âThis is wrong, you know it is. I helped them. How can you do this to me? Donât you people have any sense of justiceâhonor?â
âAye, we do.â With that, he closed the cell door and locked it.
Yelling at their backs through the barred porthole, I said, âNot from where Iâm standing, buddy!â
Ignoring my retort, Sophia said, âArenât you going to spell the door?â
âNay, sheâs only human. She cannot escape.â
Wanna bet? I was getting out of this shit hole come hell or high water, starting now. Listening to the receding footsteps, I waited for the door at the top to close. Once it did, I examined my temporary quarters. The light from the globes in the main room wasnât enough to see by, so I retrieved the phone from my pocket. Turning on the flashlight application, I studied the prison.
A ten foot cube, with no windows, one door and a drain in the floor, it was sparse, to say the least. They left me a bucket that I did not want to speculate about and a straw stuffed pallet in the corner. Lovely.
Okay, there didnât seem to be a way out. I had my cell phone though. Whom should I call? Tony was no help; he was still in the hospital. I didnât have contact information for the Agency. The police? How would I tell them to get here? They did have GPS but it was crappy on cells. It didnât matter. Maybe they could get a fix on my general location and we could figure it out from there.
Dialing 911, the phone responded âno serviceâ. Checking all my settings offered no solution. Didnât Tweentown have a single cell tower? Conserving power on the phone was my next priority and I set it to airplane mode. I was on my own.
Examining the door, I saw the hinges were on the outside with no handle or knob. The bars werenât loose, not that my hips would fit through the tiny hole. There was a two-inch gap under it but that didnât help either. The door was a bust.
Checking each stone slab for loose or broken mortar, I started with the sidewall, hoping to find a way into a neighboring room. With my own scraping and grunting, I failed to notice the noise right away. The hiss of something sharp being dragged across stone, snapped my head around. What was that? Straining my ears, I heard a swish and whispers. Someone else was down here. Running to the door, I yelled, âHello! Can you hear me?â No one answered. âHello! Please help me.â
Voices speaking soft gibberish echoed in the dark. Pressing my face to the bars, I tried to see who was outside. Distorted shadows moved along the wall. âPlease let me out. Iâll do whatever you want, just unlock the door.â
Knives scraped against the wall and I began to regret my offer. Bare feet padded along the floor. Craning my neck to the side, I watched for whoever was approaching. A black shape darted past my peripheral vision and I squinted to catch a glimpse of the shape.
Snarling, dagger-like teeth thrust into the window making me jump back two feet. Exposed gray muscles worked the grotesque creatureâs mouth, its jaws snapping at me through the opening. Saliva dripped from its chin and it rammed a hand with six-inch claws between the bars. Hissing, the monster stretched its long arm toward me. I backed across the cell, tripping over the bucket. The beastâs grotesque limb retreated and the door shook, as it rattled the handle. Screams and scrabbling sounded like a fight. How many were there? Did it make any difference? If even one got in, I was fertilizer. Claws screeched against the metal and I covered my ears. Trembling, I looked around the room for something to defend myself. Empty.
Sibilant voices argued. âOpen door.â
âFear makes meat sweet. Wait.â
Whimpering, I attempted to swallow the lump in my throat. They were going to eat me?
The door at the top of the stairs opened. Snarls, hisses and scurrying feet fled. Thank you, God. Collapsing on the pallet, I waited for my visitor, trying to calm the tremors.
Had the TsÃ¡i called for me already? Kegan left me with the impression that it would be a long time. At this point, I didnât care. I just wanted out of here. The footsteps sounded soft like cloth. Moving fast, soon they were outside the door. Hands shaking and scared out of my wits, I jumped when a metal tray slid through the wall. I looked for a slot but couldnât see one; it appeared to have come through solid stone. On the tray was bread, cheese, fruit and a large cup of water.
Rushing over to the door, I said, âWhoâs there?â
No answer. Feeling for their mind, I found timid fear. âWhatâs your name? Please talk to me.â
Debating whether to answer, he paused for a minute before speaking. âBarmek.â
âOh, the one that opened the door for us.â
âThank you for the food, Barmek. I havenât eaten since yesterday.â
âYou are welcome, miss.â
He turned to go but I stopped him. âPlease, please, donât leave me down here. They might come back.â
âHorrible monsters. They were going to eat me.â
âThatâs what they were?â
âYes. I will speak to Straton. They will not bother you again.â
Desperate to keep him talking, I scrambled for something to say. âCan I ask you a question?â
âAll right, miss.â
âI hope this doesnât offend you but what are you?â
A slight snort and he answered, âA brownie, miss.â
Remembering a little about myths and movies, I asked, âIs that like a house elf?â
âYes, it is.â
âSo you take care of the Council Chambers?â
âYes miss, I do.â
âCould you stay and talk to me for a while?â
âBrownies are not good conversationalists.â
âI donât mind. Please?â
âIt is not a good idea.â
âMy master might not approve.â
âMaster? Whoâs your master?â
âThe TsÃ¡i, miss.â
âHe makes you call him master? Are you a slave?â
âNo, miss. Not at all.â
âWhy would you call him master, if you arenât a slave?â
âWe are an ancient society, miss. It is customary to refer to the head of the house as master.â
âOh, well, I suppose thatâs different but does he dictate who you can or canât talk to?â
âNo miss, not usually.â
âWhatâs the problem then?â
âYou are a prisoner, miss. You are awaiting judgment and my master is the judge. It feelsâimproper.â
âDo you think I did something wrong?â
âNo, I... I have other duties to attend to. I must go, miss.â
âPlease, Barmek. Donât leave. Iâm sorry. I didnât mean to upset you.â
âI am not angry, miss. The connection brownies have to their house and family is difficult to explain and I have other duties. I will be back in a few hours with your dinner.â
âDo you have any idea how long they will keep me down here?â
âNo, miss. That is up to the TsÃ¡i.â
Padding steps retreated up the stairs and he was gone. Distractions removed, my ears strained for the ghouls return. Thirty minutes and not a sound. Maybe Barmek kept his word. My stomach growled and I let out a little âeekâ. Get a grip, girl. Taking the tray, I moved over to the pallet. Ravenous, I tore into the food, gulping it down as fast as I could.
Enormous, perfect hands descended from above me. Peace, warmth and love enveloped me as they took me from the cradle. Their image is clear, when everything else is shadow and light. On his pinky, he wears a silver ring with blue and green stones. Taking my wrist, he says âSou gia panta,â and the skin warms under his touch. Love, pure and complete overwhelms me.
Drifting up toward wakefulness, I considered the dream for the thousandth time. This was the love I had always sought and never found. It was unconditional and perfect. It was also a fantasy.
Metal scraped over stone, making me jerk awake. How could I have fallen asleep? Rubbing my eyes, I tried to see in the dim light. Two food trays sat in front of the wall, beside the door. âBarmek?â
âHow long was I asleep?â
âIt is morning in Charleston, miss.â
âWhatâs going on?â
âYeah, what happened with Tony and the Zephyri at the hospital?â
âThey are gone, miss.â
Horrified, I squeaked, âThey died?â
âI do not know, miss. They are gone.â
âWait a minute. What do you mean theyâre gone?â
âThey are no longer at the hospital. They are gone.â
âWhere did they go? Did someone kidnap them?â
âI presume that your government took them.â
âWhat? Why? They wouldnât...â
Leaving that particular statement unfinished, I realized that they would. They had done it beforeâto me. Who knows what they would do to them? My childhood was a nightmare thanks to them, until John saved me. Yeah, they would.
Barmek said, âThe Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken over the âButcherâsâ plantation.â
âI believe his name is Michael Faraday.â
âWhat about Tony? Is he okay?â
âI do not know who Tony is.â
âHeâs the human that was at Faradayâs lab. He went to the hospital with Malachai.â
âAh, he is gone with the rest.â
Alarmed, I said, âNo, no. I have to get out of here. I have to find him. Barmek, you have to let me out.â
âI cannot, miss. Even if I were willing to ignore my masterâs wishes, I do not have the key.â
âCan you get it?â
âI will not, miss. I am sorry.â
Gritting my teeth in resentment, I said, âYou are a slave.â
âI am a servant, not a slave.â
âAre you afraid of getting fired?â
âWhat is fired?â
âWhen your employer dismisses you.â
âI cannot be dismissed, miss.â
âDo you have a contract or something?â
âNo miss. I am bound to the TsÃ¡i.â
âThat sounds like slavery to me.â
âIt is not.â
âDoes he pay you?â
âNo, payment is not required.â
âYou are bound to the TsÃ¡i and you donât get any wages but you have to do everything he says. That is a textbook definition of slavery, Barmek.â
âYou are human and do not understand. Brownies are bound to a single family and live as long as the line survives. We care for and serve them gladly. We bring peace and tranquility to the home and the ones that live within it. We raise the children, care for the sick, prepare the meals and comfort those in need.â
âNice speech but without pay, you are a slave.â
âIs your mother a slave? Have you paid her for all the sacrifices and care?â
Squirming, I said, âNo.â
âNo. We are the soul of the household to which we belong. We hold the family together, make the building a home, serve as confidants, friends and companions. We are loved and taken care of in return. We are not slaves.â
âAll right. You made your point. So the TsÃ¡iâs family are your masters?â
âThe TsÃ¡i is yes, miss.â
âHe doesnât have a family?â
âNot any longer, miss.â
Sounding sad, Barmek said, âYes. All except the TsÃ¡i.â
âIâm sorry, Barmek.â
âThank you, miss but it was a long time ago.â
âSo when he dies, you will too?â
âThatâs terrible. Isnât there anything you can do?â
âI do not know. No one has ever tried. When the last of a line dies, the brownies bound to that family do not want to live.â
âIs the TsÃ¡i good to you?â
âWhy of course?â
âIt is self-defeating to mistreat your brownie. If any family member were to abuse a brownie bound to the household, everyone would get sick, children would become rebellious, chores would go undone, any matter of chance would go against them, accidents would happen and financial ruin.â
âI suppose that does make things more equitable.â
âYes miss, it does. I must return to my duties.â
âThanks for the company, Barmek.â
Checking the wall by the trays for an opening, I still couldnât find one. Returning to the pallet with both trays, I noticed that the empty one from the day before was gone. How had he done that? There must be a way in that I hadnât found yet. I wolfed down the food and determined to resume my search for a way out. My hunt for loose stones had only progressed half way down one wall. Imminent death was motivation enough but Tonyâs predicament made the situation more urgent.
With my concentration fixed on the wall, I didnât notice when it began but bit by bit, I became aware of a buzz coming from outside the door. Oh crap. Were the ghouls back? The sound wasnât the same though. Curious, I went over to investigate. Peering through the bars, I couldnât see the source of the sound. Tilting my head, I tried to look down at the floor. The angle was too sharp. Sending out mental feelers, I felt a familiar mind on the other side. âAlida?â
âYeah. Itâs me.â
âCan you get me out?â
âThatâs the idea.â
âOh, thank goodness!â
Grunting, she said, âHold your thanks until weâre out of here.â
Metal clicked and I pulled on the bars. It wouldnât move. âWhatâs the matter? It wonât open.â
âThat was the first tumbler. Jeez, be patient.â
âIâm in kind of a hurry.â
âYou wouldnât know it. I thought you two would never stop yapping.â
âI didnât know you were out there.â
âI hope no one else does either.â
Guilt tugged at my conscience. âYou could get into real trouble. Why are you doing this?â
âYou let me out of my prison. Iâm returning the favor.â
Another tumbler fell into place. âDo you know where they took Tony?â