“I could not help feeling that they were evil things–
mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out
over some accursed ultimate abyss.”
After Alex hung up with the Sheriff, he made another call. A sultry feminine voice answered after a few rings.
“Bon soir, mon ami!”
“Bon soir,” he replied. “How is my favorite witch this eve?”
“Wicked,” she said with a giggle.
It was a conversation they’d had a dozen times in the past year or so. When she had changed her name last December, she had chosen Morgan after Morgan le Fey from King Arthur lore, but through endless jesting and teasing, they had somehow come around to the Wicked Witch of the West.
Alex loved this vibrant woman so. In 200 years, he had never met anyone like her. He had become jaded, aloof, and he would never have even thought of playful banter, with his childer or anyone else. But Diane would have none of it. She had rejuvenated him, forced him to come out of his shell and enjoy his existence again, and he had rewarded her with the Embrace. He counted the nights till the time her studies ended so she could rejoin him here in New Orleans.
“So. What’s going on in the Big Easy?” she asked, pulling him out of his reverie. “Anything juicy?”
He chuckled. “That’s one way to put it. You might be interested to know a couple of kine crossed my threshold tonight. They were looking for you.”
There was a pregnant pause on the line, and then, “Who?”
“She said her name was Margie.”
“I don’t know her.”
“Oh, I think you do. She claims to be your sister.”
“Oh, shit! Should I come home?”
“Not just yet. You must complete your studies, and there’s more to this. They didn’t say so, but a little telepathy told a much bigger story. Besides, we may already have a Masquerade violation on our hands. Let us not make it worse by letting your sister see what you’ve become before the time is right.”
Morgan let out a heavy sigh. “Gods damn it, I should have known she wouldn’t let it go. Let me guess: the boyfriend is really her partner, and they’re still investigating my disappearance.”
“Eh, yes and no. They’re investigating a series of murders that may be Sabbat related. I believe they used your photo to get a foot in the door here. I’ve phoned the Sheriff.”
“Alex, please don’t let him hurt them,” she entreated him with a quiver in her voice. “Please.”
“No one will hurt them, cheri, I give you my word.”
“Well, keep me posted and let me know if I should come home. Je t’aime.”
“Je t’aime aussi. Goodnight, my love.”
* * *
Michael and Janelle waited twenty minutes for Mister Guidry’s return. They chatted quietly, staying in character in case he was listening. Michael finally got impatient and got up to go find their host, but the front door opened and two men came through the shop. He sat back down and eyed them curiously.
Both were wearing expensive business suits, and neither looked comfortable in them. One was imposing and looked like a hitman for the mob, or maybe a professional wrestler. He even had the blond hair and scarred forehead you might see on a seasoned veteran of the ring. He blocked the doorway, arms folded, and scowled at them. The other was smaller, with olive skin, tousled black hair, and a scruffy beard. And a warm smile. He had something Michael had never seen before other than on some ex-cons: face tattoos. The two marks were elaborate, both black and done in a flame motif. One of them crossed from his forehead to his left temple, and the other stretched from his lower right cheek down his neck.
“Ah, good, you’re here,” said Mister Guidry as he came down the stairs. “Mister Kai, what a pleasant surprise! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
The smaller man shrugged. “I was in the neighborhood.”
Guidry waved his hand toward the two on the couch. “Justin Schneider, Kai Kekoa, meet Steven and Margie Stanfield.”
“Oh, we’re not married,” they said in unison.
The wrestler stepped into the room and loomed over them. “I hear you’re looking for someone. And your search has led you . . . here. How did that happen?”
Michael wasn’t one to be intimidated, so he stood up. Schneider had barely given him room to move, but he did it anyway, pressing up against the larger man. “Dude. Why don’t you back up a bit? You’re scarin’ mah girlfriend.”
Schneider didn’t move, simply stood and glared down at him. Michael did the only thing he could think of. He climbed up on the couch and smiled down at the larger man.
Justin Schneider smiled back, but it was a cold smile. He still waited for Michael to answer.
“We’ve hit pretty much every occult shop in town,” he finally replied. “I think this is the last one we hadn’t been to.”
“And why the occult shops?”
Michael grimaced and regarded the giant suspiciously. He had conducted countless interrogations, and he knew one when he saw it. This gigantor was interrogating him. He couldn’t fathom why, unless he and Janelle had walked into some sort of trap. He looked down at Janelle, and she shrugged, so he told the truth. “Diane was pretty active in the occult community. We’re hopin’ we can find a connection somewhere.”
He turned his head toward Guidry, who was chatting quietly with Kai. “You said you could help,” he reminded the proprietor. “But I’m startin’ to feel like we’re helping you. What gives?”
Kai chuckled. “He’s not afraid of you at all, is he, Justin?”
“I bet I can make him scared.”
That would take some effort. Michael had seen a lot, and he wasn’t afraid of much, and certainly not any man, no matter how big he was.
“Now, now,” Guidry chided him. “Why don’t we take a beat and discuss ways we can help each other?”
Justin stepped back, and Michael sat back down.
“Your sister has been here,” Guidry assured Janelle. “She did not stay long, and I don’t know where she went.”
There was a tell, a minute tic of the eye, that Guidry probably didn’t even notice. But Michael did. Guidry was lying.
“Well, what did she do while she was here?” Janelle asked.
“Oh, just some shopping. Friendly girl, I remember that. Very pretty. You look very much alike.”
“And that’s why you had to call in goons?” she challenged him. “Did you think you were gonna need protection after you gave us such measly information?”
Kai smiled broadly and stepped closer, then sat down next to Michael. “My, do we have a pair here! Who are you two really?”
Michael furrowed a brow. “Whadda ya mean, ‘really’? We told you.”
Kai stared intently into his eyes for a long moment, then said, “I can spot a lie, too, my friend.”
“I’m certain you noticed his aura,” Guidry suggested.
“Oh, yes. Your aura screams . . . Michael.”
A chill went down Michael’s spine. “What the hell?”
“Somehow, I don’t think that was just a good guess,” Janelle accused the tattooed man. “How did you know his name?”
“Would you believe I can read his mind?”
“Not for a second,” Michael grunted. He held his gaze boldly, refusing to let this asshole know he was spooked.
“Clairvoyance, I’ve seen,” said Janelle, her heavy Cajun accent dropping slightly. “But telepathy is a myth.”
“Is it, though, Janelle?”
Schneider chuckled. “My size didn’t scare you, but that did, didn’t it? I can smell it on you.”
“I think it’s time we left,” Michael announced. He started to stand up, but Kai placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“My apologies, Michael. I truly didn’t mean to scare you. Sometimes, when the situation is right, I’m compelled to show off.” He looked up at Guidry. “I think we might be able to help each other out, don’t you?”
Guidry shrugged. “If you think it’s advisable. But I’ll need to make a call.”
“By all means, bring her here.” He turned back to Michael.
“Oh, God,” the big man groaned. “How many times have we had this conversation, only for it to end badly?”
Kai ignored him and turned back to the couple. “What do you really do, Michael? Police? Private investigator?”
Michael bit his lip so hard it bled, but the compulsion to answer was so powerful that he practically blurted it out. “NOPD. Eighth District.”
“And you’re working the Diane Stanfield case? Or is there more?”
Again, he felt as though someone were forcing the words from his mouth. “More. Some reports of human sacrifices.”
Schneider groaned. “Let me guess. Reports of people getting their heads bashed in. But when you arrived at the scene, you found empty graves.”
“We are so dead,” Janelle muttered.
* * *
The night is quiet as he and his team make their way through the city in the wee hours of the morning. Really quiet–too quiet. When the attack comes, it’s out of nowhere. His team, half a dozen experienced Navy SEALs with the acute senses of men who have spent years operating in the shadows, are taken completely by surprise.
Everything is a blur, and what he does see is terrible. So terrible. Monstrous creatures, fangs, claws, screams, sprays of blood. He shoots them, but it only makes them angry. Or worse, it makes them laugh. A head flies by, and his clothes get splattered with brains. Something grabs him from behind and bites him. He screams, fights, the creature snarls–
* * *
He opened his eyes and sat up in bed, a scream still on his lips. He was trembling and drenched with sweat, but the terror faded quickly. In the two seconds it took for him to shake himself awake and look back at Janelle, he relaxed and was fine. He didn’t even remember having a nightmare.
“What?” he asked abruptly.
“What do you mean, ‘what’? You were thrashing and screaming bloody murder. Scared the hell out of me.”
With that, he shrugged. “Dunno. I don’t remem–wait–how did we get here?” The last thing he could recall was that guy with the tattooed face sitting down next to him, and now he was at home in his own bed.
“I was going to ask you the same thing. I woke up when you started screaming, and I have no idea how we got here, either. Look at the clock.”
Michael looked over to see that it was 0500. They had entered Mister Guidry’s around 2030 last night and had been there about a half hour when the two men arrived. What the hell had they been doing for the last eight hours? A violent chill shook his entire body, and he began to hyperventilate. Sheer terror overtook him, and it was all he could do to keep from shrieking. He had felt like this before.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” he whimpered over and over.
Janelle placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he suddenly realized he was curled up with his arms over his knees, rocking back and forth and dripping with sweat.
“Babe. Babe! What is it?” she prodded with a look of horror on her face.
He looked at her with bewilderment. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.” He turned and started to get out of bed when he noticed a piece of folded paper on the nightstand. He picked it up and opened it. It was a note, written by someone with a shaky hand.
“There is no way I’m calling that number,” Michael declared.
Five minutes later, he was picking up the phone.