My head hit the sidewalk. Candy jerked me up by my hair and slammed my face into the asphalt.
“Hit her again!” Michelle squeaked, her teenage voice shrill.
I knew it was a dream, because it didn’t hurt. The fear was still there, that sharp, hot terror, mixed with helpless rage, the kind of fear that turns you from a human being into an animal. Things become distilled to simple concepts: I was small, they were big; I was weak, they were strong. They hurt me, and I endured.
My skull bounced off the pavement. Blood stained my blond hair. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sarah take a running start like a kicker before a field goal. The flesh on her body boiled. Bones grew, muscles wound around them like cotton candy over a stick, hair sprouted, sheathing the new body, half human, half animal, in a coat of pale sandy fur dappled with telltale hyena spots. The bouda grinned at me, her malformed mouth full of fangs. I clenched up, curling my ten-year-old self into a ball. The clawed foot crashed into my ribs. The three-inch claws scraped a bone and it crunched inside me like a snapped chopstick. She kept kicking me.
Thud, thud, thud!
This was a dream. A dream grown from my memories, but still just a dream. I knew this, because ten years after my mother took eleven-year-old me and fled halfway across the country, I came back and put two bullets through Sarah’s eyes. I had emptied a clip into Candy’s left ear. I still remembered the way her skull had blossomed with red when the bullets tore out the other side. I had killed the entire werehyena clan. I wiped those bouda bitches off the face of the planet, because the world was a better place with them gone. Michelle was the only one who had escaped.
I sat up and grinned at them. “I’m waking up, ladies. Go f**k yourselves.”
My eyes snapped open. I lay in my closet, wrapped in a blanket and holding a butcher knife. The door of the closet stood slightly ajar, and the gray light of early morning slipped through the narrow gap.
Fantastic. Andrea Nash, decorated veteran of the Order, hiding in her closet with her knife and a blankie. I should’ve held on to the dream long enough to beat them into bloody pulp. At least then I wouldn’t feel so completely pathetic.
I inhaled, sampling the air. The normal scents of my apartment floated to me, the hint of synthetic apple from the soap in the bathroom, the fragrance of vanilla from the candle by my bed, and strongest of all, the stench of dog fur, a leftover from when my friend Kate’s poodle Grendel had kept me company. That freak of nature had slept at the foot of my bed, and his distinctive reek was permanently imprinted on my rug.
The scents were muted, which meant the magic was down.
What in the world?
Someone was pounding on my door.
I kicked off my blanket, rolled to my feet, and ran out of the closet. My bedroom greeted me: my big bed, intruder-free; the crumpled mess of the blanket on the rug; my jeans and bra, discarded last night by the bed, next to a Lorna Sterling paperback with a pirate in a poofy shirt on the cover; bookcase, stuffed to the brim; pale blue curtains on the barred window, undisturbed.
I dropped the butcher knife onto my side table, pulled on my pajamas pants, grabbed my Sig-Sauer P226 from under the pillow, and ran to the door. Waking up with a gun in my hand would’ve made a lot more sense, but no, I’d woken up clutching a knife. That meant I must’ve gotten up in the middle of the night, run into the kitchen, taken a knife from the butcher block, run back into the bedroom, grabbed a blanket, and hidden in the closet. All without realizing where I was or what I was doing. If that wasn’t crazy, I didn’t know what was.
I hadn’t slept with a knife since I was a teenager. This blast from the past wasn’t welcome and it needed to go away real fast.
I reached the door and stood on my toes to look through the peephole. A tall black woman in her fifties stood on the other side. Her gray hair stuck out from her head in a mess, she was wearing a nightgown, and her face was so twisted by worry, I barely recognized her. Mrs. Haffey. She and her husband lived in an apartment right below me.
Normally Mrs. Haffey viewed her appearance as serious business. In terms of battle readiness, she was my hero—I’ve never seen her without her makeup and hair perfectly done. Something was really wrong.
I unlocked the door.
“Andrea!” Mrs. Haffey gasped. Behind her, long white strands covered the landing and the stairwell. I was one hundred percent sure they hadn’t been there when I’d dragged myself into my apartment last night.
I pulled her into my apartment and shut the door. “I need you to tell me from the beginning, slowly and clearly: what happened?”
Mrs. Haffey took a deep breath. She had been a cop’s wife for twenty-five years and her experience from dealing with a lifetime of emergencies kicked in. Her voice was almost steady. “I woke up and made coffee. Darin got up to take Chief outside. I took a shower. When I came out, Darin wasn’t back. I went out on the balcony, but he wasn’t in his usual spot.”
I knew exactly where the usual spot was: two stories under my bedroom window, where the Haffeys’ bulldog, Chief, preferred to mark his territory. I smelled it on my way to work every morning. Of course, Chief smelled my scent and it only made him more determined to pee his way to territorial supremacy.
“I called and called Darin, and nothing. I tried to go downstairs. There’s blood all over the landing and a white substance on the stairs and it’s blocking the way.”
“Did Mr. Haffey take his gun with him?”
Mr. Haffey had retired from the Paranormal Activity Division of the Atlanta Police Department. PAD cops took their guns seriously. As far as I knew, Darin Haffey never left the house without his Smith & Wesson M&P340 snub-nosed revolver.
“He always takes his gun with him,” Mrs. Haffey said.
And he hadn’t fired it, because his revolver ate .357 Magnum cartridges. When he pulled the trigger, the shot sounded like a small cannon going off. I would’ve heard the gunshot and recognized it even through the dream. Whatever happened, happened fast.
The mysterious “white substance” must’ve appeared as a result of the magic wave last night. Kate, my best friend, had warded my apartment months ago. Invisible spells shielded my place in a protective barrier. She’d covered the perimeter walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Anything magic would have a hard time breaking in, which probably explained why I’d slept safe and secure through the night.
“You know Darin’s blind as a bat.” Mrs. Haffey twisted her hands. “He can’t even see what he’s shooting at. The other day he comes running out of the bathroom, screaming and foaming at the mouth. He’d brushed his teeth with Aspercreme instead of toothpaste…”
A note of hysteria slipped into her voice. At five ten, she had eight inches of height on me and she was leaning over. “I called down to the station, but they say it will be twenty minutes or longer. I thought since you were with the Order…”
I used to be with the Order. When I was a Knight of Merciful Aid, it was my job to help people when the cops wouldn’t or couldn’t assist them with the magic hazmat. I had decorations and a stellar service record, but none of it mattered when the Order found out that I was a shapeshifter. They branded me mentally disturbed and unfit for duty and “retired” me.
But they didn’t take away my training or my skills.
I pressed a latch in my wall. A panel slid aside, revealing a small niche that used to be a hallway closet and which I had converted into my own personal armory. A row of gun barrels gleamed in the morning light.
Mrs. Haffey clicked her mouth shut.
Let’s see. I’d be bringing my Sigs, but I needed something with more power. The AA-12, an Automatic Assault 12-gauge shotgun with a 32-round clip was always a good choice. It fired 300 rounds per minute with minimal recoil. I filled mine with steel slugs. Squeeze the trigger once, and get a single shot that would punch through a car door. Hold the trigger, and anything on the other end, no matter how much hard body armor it wore, would become a smoking pile of meat in six and a half seconds. I’d paid a fortune for it and it was worth every dollar.
I grabbed the AA-12 and put on a hip holster, into which I stuck my Sig and its twin. “Mrs. Haffey, I need you to stay here.” I gave her a nice big smile. “Lock the door behind me and don’t open it until I come back. Do you understand?”
Mrs. Haffey nodded.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
I stepped onto the landing and heard the deadbolt slide shut behind me.
The “white substance” stretched in long pale strands over the walls. It resembled a spiderweb, if the spider was the size of a bowling ball and instead of working in a spiral had decided to weave only in a vertical direction. I crossed the landing and inhaled. Usually there was an up-draft here, the air rising from the front entrance to the top of the building. Today no movement troubled the stairway, but I smelled the sharp metallic odor of fresh blood all the same. Tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The predator in me, the other me sleeping deep inside, opened her eyes.