Red paused in the lobby of the truck stop to admire the working slot machines on her way out. Only in Nevada… She couldn’t see the lights of Las Vegas on the dark horizon, but she knew they were close.
After hours transporting a soulmancer across state lines, she should have been aching and stressed. She had upended her settled life in Los Angeles at the last minute. Instead, she bounced out the door with road snacks and good spirits. The smell of old exhaust in the parking lot could have been the finest cologne. Even hauling dangerous cargo, the road felt simple after months of grappling with vampire intrigues. It felt almost like home.
A tickle of magic made her spine itch. The breeze whipped over the parking lot bringing sand from the encroaching desert wilderness. Red shivered in her faux leather jacket. She fought the urge to turn and gawk like a person who forgot why they went into the kitchen.
She let herself see magic like flicking a black light on to reveal glowing energy. She liked that visual more than the idea of a mystical third eye opening in her forehead. Scanning the eighteen-wheelers rolling by, she refocused on Vic Constantine fueling up at the pumps. He patted his black van like a trusty dog. Her mentor called it the Millennium Falcon. Neon sigils were lovingly traced on its dusty paint job.
Red felt a spell even if only the glimmer of life and elemental energy along with the usual spectral bric-a-brac floated over the lot. Pulling out her cellphone and adjusting her snack bag, she pretended to look at the screen to not look like a total freak while feeling out the strange magic. She walked down the building’s wraparound sidewalk towards the distant smoking area.
White light radiated under a picnic table, streaming out from the benches. It shined bright enough to cast an ethereal glow on the windows and outshone the slot machines inside.
Red nearly dropped her phone. She looked over to an elderly woman and her husband leaving their motor coach to walk inside the rest station. Neither seemed to notice anything amiss. Red tilted her head down to check out what the hell was glowing under there.
The dry weeds nearly hid seven perfect triangles assembled from tiny white and pink quartz into sacred geometry.
Straightening, Red quirked her eyebrow. She wasn’t properly schooled in witchcraft and had spent too much time stubbornly resisting her power, but she still recognized the common spell. It was a good luck charm. Nothing evil about it.
“Hey Miss, are you heading to LA?” A young voice piped up behind her.
Red put her phone into her pocket, turning around.
“Sorry to bother you,” the teenager said, polite despite the repressed worry twitching at her brow. Dark circles lined brown eyes. A spring green aura lingered over her clean jean jacket. Her cherry-red hood covered the mussed ginger wig on her head. It almost looked real in the dull outdoor lights.
Red tried to see the other woman’s chakras with her spirit gaze but strangely didn’t find a glimmer. If the girl could hide her chakras from view, then she wasn’t a muggle. She certainly looked harmless and human otherwise. Red shut her third eye, so she didn’t look spacey. “You’re traveling alone?”
“I’m eighteen. I can do that. I just need a ride to LA to um, see my cousin.” She nodded firmly as if it could cover the tremble in her voice.
“I’m not heading west.” Red didn’t like seeing the worry on the young woman’s face. Her soft heart battled with her brain. She was already on a job- getting Basil to a magical academy in Las Vegas. Her docket of ‘innocents to save’ was full. She couldn’t help herself. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Blue, I’m Red. Seriously.” She smiled, knowing a fake name when she heard one. She had one herself, but she had a feeling that Ellie didn’t have amnesia as an excuse. “I don’t know if there is a bus station near here, but I’ll chip in to get you a ticket.”
“There isn’t anything in this town besides a dry lake.” Ellie shrugged, rubbing her arms. “Thanks anyway, lady.”
“Hey, I can still give you some cash.” Red tried not to sound awkward but having money to spare still felt new. Considering how shady the supernatural bank that held her mysterious trust fund was, she felt better when she used the money to help people.
“I need a ride. Not cash.” Ellie shook her head, solemn expression on her round cheeked face. “Thank you. I’ll be fine.”
Red didn’t know what to think of that, but it wasn’t her mystery to solve. She smiled, trying to keep the mom-worry out of her tone. “Be safe.”
“I have luck on my side.” Ellie grinned, readjusting her red hood, then walked away.
Red looked at the picnic table, mumbling to herself. “I bet you do.”
The Millennium Falcon rumbled to the curb. Vic glared at her from the driver’s seat. Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi streamed from the speakers. He turned it off then ruffled his hand through his shaggy black mullet. “It’s almost the witching hour.”
Red hopped into the passenger side, placing the bag on the floor, and belting herself in. She checked her side mirror as they drove away to check on Ellie one last time.
She talked with a group in yellow tracksuits- another woman and two lanky guys with their backs turned. Maybe she had found some college kids on a road trip. Red hoped her luck held.
Basil shifted on a squeaky bean bag, poking his head between the two front seats. His bright green jacket collar matched the nauseous tint to his skin. His British accent came out wanly. “How long until we get there?”
“Hey lay down, buddy.” Red eyed the soulmancer. For a guy who vacationed in Tahoe and Bali, he didn’t travel well. “I got you ginger ale.”
Vic looked back at Basil. “Still car sick?”
“I’m rolling around this stoner van on an bean bag. What do you think?” Basil hiccupped before holding his mouth.
“God damn it.” Vic turned the Falcon to the side of the truck stop out of view of the smoking area and busy front entrance. He parked and hit the console button to open the side door. “Hurl out there. We still got thirty minutes on the road.”
Basil dashed out to lean on a dumpster.
“You know he can’t be seen.” Red put her hands to her ears to block out the sound of the soulmancer.
Basil had lived with a target on his back since he came into his powers. Any vampire would put him in the ground on principle. Over the first half of the 20th century, countless vampires had been cursed with souls, forced to feel the full range of human emotion and empathy, by magic slinging vigilantes. All because of one soulmancer who taught the supernatural world how to do it. That wasn’t something vampires forgot. The August Harvest might as well have been yesterday for them. Basil had been running far longer than tonight.
Red added, “I don’t care if Cora scrubbed him from the Blood Alliance record.”
“We’re out of sight! Besides the undead Feds aren’t our problem and they’re the only ones who know what really happened that night.” Vic gripped the steering wheel, knuckling paling. “Hilde Higbee’s followers were executed.”
“Dead men tell tales.” Red sounded flippant to her own ears, but goosebumps rose on her skin. Spectral smoke wafting off the jagged metal and a punishing pull on her magic were etched in her memory forever. A favor for the Supreme Master Vampire of Los Angeles to get Basil to safety was an easy excuse to leave the city. Red had lost enough there.
They had saved every souled vampire in California from reverting back to empathy-less monsters, but Quinn had paid the ultimate price for their victory. He wasn’t the only victim. Basil had been drained of his magic and nearly his life. Red squared her shoulders, shoving the trauma back to save for therapy. “He was strapped to the Genesis Machine, casting forbidden soul magic, in front of a legion of vampires just four days ago.”
Vic shot her an unimpressed glance. “So were you and I let you out of the van.”
“No one wants to kill me for once.” Red knocked on the plastic dashboard of the van. “Pretend I am tapping on wood.”
The last few weeks had been heart breaking from Quinn’s passing to her banishment from the Brotherhood. The only bright side was that it had cleared out her enemy list- Sancha Constanza, Michel de Grammont, Hilde Higbee, and even Kristoff Novak. The first three were dead and she had leverage on the last.
Was Kristoff still her enemy? She couldn’t help but feel grateful to the unsouled vampire whenever she saw Vic’s miraculously healed legs. The lie about an experimental treatment hadn’t fooled Basil, judging by the skepticism on his face, but he had let it go. Fingers crossed everyone else did the same. She bit her lip, touching his claim mark on her neck. Was she going to use Kristoff’s dark gift against him? Revealing the rare healing power of his blood would make him a target. No, but it was a card up her sleeve if she needed it.
She pushed her thoughts away from the all too complicated Mr. Novak to the simple job at hand. “Basil is the priority.”
“So are biohazards.” Vic snapped his head to the side so fast that his mullet flared out like an agitated frilled lizard. “You’re not appreciating that I cleaned up and reorganized the supplies while you were sleeping off the last case.”
“Now, I won’t be able to find anything for days.” Red chuckled, looking back at the stacked utility boxes strapped to the left wall and decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and LED lights.
“I finally got the van back to how it used to be. Not going to let a fake Englishman mess it up.” Vic huffed.
“Fine. I don’t want to toss a bean bag because he ralphed in it either.” Red lifted her palms in surrender. She found it hard to argue with the desire for things to be back to normal. Or whatever normal was to monster hunters.
“I’m telling you just what I told that cop when I left Stan’s pot farm in Colorado- the beans capture smells.”
Red rested her elbow on the car door, smiling as she let him ramble on about his organization project. They didn’t get much of a chance to talk about the fallout from the insanity of the last few weeks from Vic reuniting with his estranged adopted brother to Quinn’s death. They technically still freelanced for Quinn Investigations, but neither could face going back into the office so soon.
Her heart panged thinking of her farewell to Lucas. He had broken up with her, but she couldn’t stop herself from worrying about him. Caring for a grieving Delilah would be easy for him. Processing his own loss? Not so much. She had sent him a text that she had left on a job but wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t replied in the few hours since she left the city. He had taken up his grandsire’s mantle and the responsibilities that came with it.
“Thank god for mouthwash.” Basil muttered as he returned to paw through his suitcase in the back of the van. He gargled and spat onto the asphalt. “The indignities never end. First, I nearly died in dirty sweatpants and now I am cleaning myself up by the rubbish bin.”
A hint of magic stirred in the air. Red straightened in her seat. Beyond the empty back lot, squat creosote bushes trembled in the wind giving little cover to anything but scorpions in the flat desert. The truck stop’s shape had an irregular built upon design as if it expanded from a humble gas station to include a restaurant and a gift shop as an afterthought. The unevenly spaced lights bred shadows. Red did not like it. “Drive around the building. I think there’s trouble.”
Basil closed the side door of the van and hunkered down. “There is enough trouble in here.”
“Vic, you saw the girl that I was talking to, right? I think she made a luck charm”
The wind carried a high-pitched yelp of surprise mixed with the honk of a semi-truck. A shriek broke out over the din of the busy rest station. “Get away from me!”
Vic killed the headlamps, driving forward. “Doesn’t sound like that charm worked.”
“Basil, get the door ready.” Red pressed against the windshield as the Falcon nosed around the side of the building. The backs of the gas station and attached sandwich shop met in an unlit corner hidden from the passing travelers in the front.
Three figures in yellow tracksuits loomed over a smaller figure in a red hood, raising their arms to keep her in the center of a tight square. A hyena chortle rose from the group as they teased their prey.
“We’re meters away and I can feel the dark juju from here.” Basil sighed. “Do the hero thing.”
Red reached into the large hunter’s kit between the front seats for a heavy steel cylinder can of bear mace with powdered blessed silver, cold iron, and wolfsbane. Vic called it ‘were-mace’ but it gave most things a second thought about attacking. It didn’t kill but it stung like a son of a bitch. She kept an eye on the fight. “Go, Vic.”
Vic shook his head, gesturing to the scene. “We need to know what we’re dealing with from these tracksuit mofos.”
Biting her chew, Red studied the scene. In their twenties or thirties, the creeps had the same square jaw, intense dark eyebrows, and thin lips. The family resemblance was strong even without the matching outfits. She couldn’t detect magic off them, but their earthen colored auras had a wild ripple in their energies.
Black bearded and bright eyed, the man on the left lunged in a feint, laughing. He had the lanky long-limbed enthusiasm of a growing puppy. “Thought you wanted a ride?”
Ellie whirled around, brandishing a shaking silver dagger at him. “Get back!”
“The little witch wants to fight.” The bald man grunted from the other side. A white scar split his dark upper lip under a patchy mustache. The words might have slurred together as if he had too many teeth in his mouth but his dark tone echoed crystal clear.
The sole woman in a gang tossed her hair, bleached to a radioactive looking white blond, over her shoulder. Her thick black brows matched her roots. She puffed her chest up, chin jutting out. “We don’t go down that easy. We’re not pussy vampires.”
An older black-haired male jumped down from the one-story roof into a crouch. The other three bowed their heads before he stood. Shadows seemed to cling to his craggy face as he stepped forward. His nondescript dark olive skin tone could have allowed him to disappear into any crowd. Only his dead eyed stare and missing ear marked him as a man to watch. He gripped the zipper at the neck of his fitted black tracksuit and yanked it down to reveal his hairy scarred chest. Lips moving, he didn’t need to raise his voice to command attention.
Red couldn’t hear his words, but it didn’t matter. Her gut didn’t like anything about this situation. “Now.”
Vic gunned the engine, turning the Falcon on a dime and zooming towards the bunch. The van skidded to a stop. He flipped the headlamps on.
The tracksuits recoiled, shielding their faces, eyes reflecting silver in the bright light. Shifters.