Here goes! The first chapter is below for you to read, and I hope you enjoy it. Before I post it though I feel compelled to remind everyone that this is a work of fiction, so no people or places or organizations are meant to sound like your people or actually represent real places or organizations. Between us though? If this book about monsters sounds like your life? We should hang out.
My sister is an artist. She sees people in paint and life through lenses. I left her alone in my apartment once, when I briefly had an apartment, and she made my desk a tableau in paper clips. I think that’s why things always seem to find her. There’s a term, la jolie laide— the lovely ugly. Graffiti on crumbling buildings, the lines on a homeless man’s face, a dandelion surviving in the middle of a driveway. She sees the beauty while I count the cost to repave the damn driveway. I think she sees it in them and they can feel her examining the lines on their small, twisted selves, the dandelions that sometimes live in their hearts.
Me? I just try to keep her from being carried off by the damn things. Perhaps I will invest in manacles. I hear they’re making a comeback.
“Ready to go?” I ask her, kicking her motel bed with my riding boot.
“Ophelia, don’t do this to me.”
I rub my tired eyes. I probably got a solid four hours of sleep last night. I let her crash early yesterday, but she’s impossible to get up in the morning.
“Lia …I have coffee for you…”
Stillness. She puts out a hand and positions herself so that she can drink and mostly lie down at the same time. I hand her the cup of weak coffee that the motel thoughtfully provided to us and go back to making sure all of our stuff is packed up.
“Hurry up and drink it, I want to let this place watch me walk away, fast as I can.”
“Z’not so bad,” she slurs.
“Ah, it speaks!”
“This coffee is crap.”
“It speaks in divine truths.”
She sighs and stands up, moving to put her hair into a bun and looking for clothes.
“I kinda liked this town though,” she continues as she heads to the bathroom. The faucet turns on and she comes back out brushing her teeth.
“The mountains are amazing, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better crepe than at that diner yesterday.”
“You’re absolutely right. Aside from the ravenous pack of ghuls stealing babies and killing sheep, this place would have made a marvelous location for a second home.”
“Ohfurssome,” she amends, mouth still full of toothpaste.
“Or first home,” I agree. I guess technically our parents still live in our childhood home, but we try not to go back. Ophelia served as fae chow for years there, and it was where I drew my first blood. Needless to say, it’s not quite the shelter from reality most people consider their parents’ house.
She comes out in ripped skinny jeans and combat boots, shimmying into a camisole and slouchy sweater.
“It doesn’t have ghuls any more, though,” Lia points out, throwing her pajamas into her duffel bag.
“True. On the other hand it is the town that ruined my favorite coat, and now when I think of crepes, I can smell sheep guts, so…there’s that.”
She sighs and sits down to finish lacing her boots.
“We’ve seen some fucked up shit,” she says brightly, looking over her shoulder at me. I think back to the most recent episode in our lives—ghuls are an ogre-like monster that enjoy feeding on humans and generally inspiring terror.
“You’re not wrong,” I say picturing their gruesome den again.
“By the way, I saw an art supply store on the way into town, can we stop on the way? I’d like a new pen.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, picking up my stuff and heading to the car. I throw my bag on the floor of the back seat and stop to rub my eyes again. Sleep and I have a complicated relationship. I open the driver’s side door, carefully arrange my dress and sit down, reconfiguring mirrors—Lia had last shift. She’s out a minute later, throwing her bag on top of mine and throwing herself in the front seat of our Lexus LX. She tosses me a protein bar, and we’re on our way.
“So, where to next?” I ask her, after we’ve put Sula, Montana well in our rearview.
We don’t often have an agenda. We’re not big on conspiracies and homework and a lot of stuff that others in our field of expertise tend to do. No, we’re much more fortunate than that. Trouble just finds us, most days.
“Helpful, good start.”
“Done. Maybe we can try wintering like snowbirds this year, wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Summer for Summer, all year round. Very poetic,” Lia teases, pulling out a crossword.
“Hell yeah. One whole year without traipsing through mud and sleet and falling on my ass getting into the car…if California wasn’t such a magnet for weird, I’d see the attraction.”
“Man, what is it with Cali? I think we’ve found more booga booga per capita there than anywhere else.
Water spirits, fire spirits, tree spirits, ghosts, yetis, goblins…the problem with a state as big as California is that it’s got enough room for all sorts of monster clans to set up camp. And, like humans, they’re just drawn there. I make a mental note to myself to do some research into avocadoes and the sewage systems there—just in case it’s more than coincidental.
Five minutes into the crossword, Lia is asleep. She is almost constitutionally incapable of staying awake unless she’s driving. She’s also a super heavy sleeper at almost all times, so I sync up my phone and let my road music play.
After a few hours, I have to stop and stretch, so I follow signs for the nearest road stop. One of the downsides of the life is that there’s a lot of sitting, followed by a lot of physical activity. Movies always gloss over the aches and pains of multiple stab wounds, broken bones and concussions over the years.
“Lia. Yoga.” I push her until she wakes up again.
“You’re repeating yourself. Gotta stretch. C’mon.”
“Summer, you hate yoga.”
“Yeah, but we’re a million miles from a Planet Fitness, sooo…”
We pull over and get out, doing our warm ups right on the side of the road. Which is why we’re in the middle of welcoming the sun when Clem Hanson’s pick up rolls up next to us. Good thing I’d modestly faced my rear away from the road. Unfazed, we both right ourselves and walk back to our car.
“Ladies. I always wondered how you kept it tight.”
“We were just stretching. The real exercise is assholes like you,” I taunt him.
“Gotta stay limber,” Lia adds, suggestively raising her eyebrows even as she flashes her knives.
Clem looks at us uncomfortably. He’s very much a one-speed kind of guy, so presenting him with violence and leg at the same time sort of short-circuits him.
“What brings you to Idaho, Clem?”
“Work,” he says, regaining his composure. I roll my eyes.
“No shit. I thought maybe the Potato Museum lured you.”
“Oh, ha, ha. There’s been talk of kids gone missing up in Montana.”
“Up north? ‘ Round Sula?”
“You’re too late, Slick. Me n’ Lia took care of it. Pack of ghuls.”
“Son of a bitch! I was in New Mexico when I found out.”
“I keep telling you, we should have a mailing list, tell each other when we got dibs.”
“You sure you got ‘em all?”
I exchange sour looks with my sister.
“No,” she says. “We left a couple. You know we’re softies about endangered species.”
His face darkens. It turns out, most of our colleagues are not terribly good at comedy and really not good about being the butt of a joke, or having their authority challenged. Lia and I agree that that’s their problem, not ours.
“Well, damn. That’s a couple tanks of gas wasted.”
“Sure is!” I smile at him. “C’mon though, I’ll buy you a beer, we can catch up.” I point behind me at the truck stop in the distance.
“Suppose it’s five o’clock somewhere…” He smiles at us and walks back to his car.
“What are the odds we meet another in the biz in freakin’ Idaho,” Lia mutters.
“I know. And an actual banisher, too. Three thousand miles of space, maybe sixty of us in all of it, and now three of us in one bar, unexpectedly.” Most of our colleagues are closer to ghost whisperers than exorcists. They work to appease or trap the monsters rather than send them packing.
“Do we have to people?” She complains, using shorthand to ask if we really need to socialize. “Can’t we just go kill something instead?”
“Not really sure I’d call Clem people…” I say, stepping into the driver’s seat. “However, you definitely cannot kill him.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
We follow behind the faded red Chevy down the rocky path to the stop, and into the restaurant, which always looks the same to me no matter where we are in the USA. They’re all a little tired looking with sickly seventies colors and a general motif of either cars or dead animals, depending on the region. We’re lucky today; this one has both.
Finding a table is momentarily challenging as all three of us angle for a seat facing the door. We silently compromise by choosing a table with two seats roughly facing the entrance and one facing a mirror, which I grudgingly take.
“So, what was in New Mexico,” I ask while Lia flags down a waitress whose pallor makes me do a double take to confirm she’s not actually a ghost. She has a reflection: check. When she bumps into chair it moves: check. God, we have weird lives.
We all order drinks and sandwiches.
“Shaman was startin’ trouble, big time. Gregor gave me a buzz, said he could use another pair of hands. So we paid the guy a visit.”
“Whoa, Gregor called for help?” Gregor is sort of a legend in our field. He’s lived longer than most, fought more monsters than most, and may or may not be part monster himself, though he fights on our side.
“Do you think Gregor really captured a troupe of giants single-handedly?” Lia asks.
“And beheaded ‘em all,” Clem confirms.
I whistle in admiration. Giants are tough cookies. They’re big, strong, fast, and have armor-like skin. If you don’t have the right ritual components to ask Odin to step in, the only way to kick them out of this world is to chop off their heads—that is to say, to slowly hack apart their tree-sized necks.
“And what happened with the shaman?”
“He was messin’ with some pretty heavyweight idols. Working his way up to human sacrifice. But we got there in time. He’s on the straight and narrow, now.” Clem flashes a fierce smile. “The real narrow.”
“Damn, he needed to be put down?” Lia’s eyebrows raise again, an attempt to mask her revulsion. We almost exclusively work jobs that don’t involve actual human predators, even if they’re assholes. There are just too many grey areas. When we dismiss something from a pantheon of monsters, we know where they go; it’s the natural order. I have no idea where human souls go when we move on. Not super keen on learning in the near future, either.
We make small talk, which is to say, we chat about various jobs we’ve done, or old friends we’ve run into, and laugh at the wild shenanigans of the various pantheons. I’m sure there’s more than one person listening to our conversation, and it’s a toss-up whether they think we’re nuts or are misguided fools desperately hoping that Tinkerbell does exist. If only they knew what dicks faeries really are…. Not my problem today, I remind myself as I manage to laugh appropriately at Lia’s story, which involves a very improbable run-in with a werewolf in a car wash.
The conversation lulls when the waitress arrives with our food. My sister and I have a pact that if we’re gonna live this life, we’re going to do it like respectable people—no stealing, no burglary. This has the unfortunate consequence of limiting most of our meals to largely synthetic proteins as the cheapest source of nutrients. When we splurge on real food, we savor every bite. Even if it is soggy turkey on wonder bread.
“Turning now to Virginia,” the news reporter comments on the television behind the bar, “four women have gone missing on a college campus this month. Authorities are requesting any information on their whereabouts, and ask the public to remain vigilant.” This catches my attention. I truly, really, hate abduction stories. I make sure I get every AMBER Alert in the zip code I’m in, and I study each one. I follow all missing persons, not because it always ends in a hunt, but because if it was ever me, I’d really hope someone else was taking it seriously. This one strikes me though. All of the girls are a type. All of the footage of them seems to show them moving in a pack of other girls, meaning they wouldn’t normally be good prey for a human predator.
“Summer? Ya with us?” Lia is waving a french fry at me, trying to get my attention.
“Sorry yeah. Hey, Clem, spread the word so no one else wastes the gas. Ophelia and I are heading to Virginia to look into the disappearances on that college campus. Consider this dibs.”
My sister looks at me, then at the television and suppresses a sigh.
“Sure thing, I’ll post it to the Facebook group,” Clem volunteers.
“Aw, you wouldn’t make a group and not invite us, would you?” Lia asks, determined to savor normalcy for a second.
“I dunno, you girls are rabble rousing women’s libbers. What if I wanted to make a list of tourist bang-ability, and had to worry about you coming to kill me in my sleep?”
“Frankly, I’m concerned for you that you don’t already think that’s a possibility,” I retort, rejoining the flow of conversation.
“Guess I’ll stay out of Virginia, then. They say where exactly? Wanna make sure I skirt the tri-county area.”
“Yeah, Roanoke. So…yeah, better to just stay out of Virginia entirely. Know what? You stay here, that’s probably safest,” I tease.
“And let you know where to find me? Please.” He laughs. “You sure it’s something in Roanoke and not just Roanoke being Roanoke?”
“Yeah!” Lia pipes up. “Maybe this is one of the Great Unsolved Mysteries. I don’t know who we’d call to fix an entire city.”
Roanoke has a reputation. There have been abductions, strange disappearances, and bizarre plagues that crop up every now and again throughout its history. None of us monster-fighting weirdos even know why, or really who we’d petition to make it better—nothing we have recorded speaks to any known curse or deity that would explain the bad luck Roanoke has had over the years.
“Only one way to find out,” I say to her.
We banter and linger over our plates as long as we can stand it. Us drifter types enjoy finding our small remnants of society for a minute, but then we like to go back to the road. Most of us aren’t what you’d call “socialites”, so we get antsy when we have to spend a lot of time with humans who aren’t trying to kill us.
We say goodbye to Clem at his pickup and get back into our silver Lexus. Lia hops in the driver’s seat this time, which is good because I’m freakin’ beat.
“So. Virginia. Missing girls?”
“Yep,” I answer her, pushing back the seat. “At least it is, in fact, very, very south.”
“Still got snow there.”
“Also yes, but hopefully climate change isn’t so bad yet that it’s snowing in September. If it is, we’ll start looking at options to go kill moon men, sound cool?”
“Sounds very cool! Let’s just do that anyways.”
“Ten-four. You figure out how to get into space, and after my nap, I’ll start looking at what kind of baddies we might expect.”
Ophelia adjusts her road music—the very comforting, not at all frenetic trip-hop she loves— and I doze off almost instantly.
I wake suddenly to what sounds like the same song. “How long was I out?”
She looks over at me half amused, half sympathetic.
“Twenty minutes, on the nose. As usual.”
“You can try those sleeping pills,” she suggests again.
I shake my head in frustration. “No. I know the one time I dope up, we’re gonna literally run into a nest of vampire-ghost-werewolf…demi god…whoza-cabras and I’ll be useless.”
My sister laughs. “Hot damn! Vampire ghost wolf chupacabra! What’d that be? Wolpirecabra? Chupolf vampost?”
“Well don’t keep saying it, you might summon it.”
She laughs again while I dig around for water.
“Can we please not listen to something that sounds like I am in fact tripping balls on sleeping pills?”
“So what…want the radio?”
I glare at her. In this neck of the woods, it’s all Delilah and country music. I’m not sure which is worse. “Just…something else, please. Until I wake up.”
She shrugs and changes the song, guitars screaming as something metal starts. “Much better,” I approve, leaning back again.
We take turns driving straight through. Our system is pretty practiced at this point. About every hour, I can fall asleep for twenty minutes—maybe even twice in an hour, if it’s dark and the road conditions are perfect. After three of my naps, I can stay awake for three hours without needing to sleep. It means I get an hour for roughly every three my sister gets of shut eye, which is less than ideal. But our last honest work was over a month ago and funds are short for motel rooms where, frankly, I don’t really sleep much better anyway. I think it must be what sailors feel, where sleeping in a bed you can’t feel moving is unsettling. We only stop for necessities, stretching, and trouble.
Straight through, it’s about forty hours, accounting for rest stops, and the seven fill ups we need to pay for to get there. Driving in this old gas guzzler, sometimes flying is cheaper, but the TSA ask so many questions about weapons, and checked baggage fees…oy. Who needs the headache?
We pull up in the outskirts of Roanoke, Virginia and into the cheapest motel that has a second story. We feel too exposed on the ground floor—there’s nothing like bringing your work home with you when you’re in the monster fighting industry. I’ve tried it a couple times now, and Lia and I agree that it’s best that we keep work at the office. Motels are only economical when you don’t need to pay for burned out mattresses or blood-stained carpets.
“Sweet lord in heaven, hallowed be thy name, a shower,” my sister says, making as if to race me to bathroom.
“Go for it, I’ll do a perimeter check,” I reply, with a look of longing at the bed. “Focus, Summer,” I mutter to myself testily. I walk around, hanging our travel safety measures—dream catchers, cold iron, a small pat of butter in a bowl by the door and so on. Things for humans, too: a lens that fits over the fisheye in the door to project images of people outside onto my laptop, and a small shatter-proof glass pane that covers most of the window and is secured with a tension rod. It’s not super helpful for keeping determined things out, but it’s pretty good at catching a bullet or two and limiting the amount of glass in the room. I’m wicked tired of pulling glass out of wounds.
When I feel that my preparations are sufficient, which maybe not coincidentally coincides with Ophelia opening the door to the bathroom, I throw a pinch of salt over my left shoulder, grab my shower stuff and head in myself.
“What’s left?” my sister asks.
“The room should be about good to go. You get to choose: you can search for dinner, news reports, or work.”
“I am the luckiest girl on the planet, all those enticing options.”
“You bet your ass. Livin’ the dream.” I make a sarcastic face at her and close the door, avoiding the puddles she always leaves when she showers, but enjoying the warm steam already wafting around the small, tiled room.
I undress, careful of the hitch in my collarbone from when I broke it two years ago. I trace the scars on my hips and back, and feel for the earring that heats up and glows when trouble is near. I straighten the silver and iron cross around my neck, and move my spell pouch to the back of the toilet, within reach of the shower should I need it.
As soon as hot water touches me, I feel alive again. The road grunge, the aches and pains from sitting too long, the headache from insufficient sleep all fade away under the glorious water pressure. Leaving is hard, but my very exacting internal clock starts going into overdrive if I shower more than fifteen minutes, so with a sigh I turn the water off and towel dry.
“Which did you pick?” I call out as I pull on yoga pants and a thermal shirt. Silence. “Lia? Which did you pick?”
I instinctively reach for my earring again as I open the door. It’s not hot, which is a good sign, but Lia isn’t on her bed or anywhere else in the room, which is less good.
I grab my phone, my gun and the last of my cash and run towards the door, trying not to panic. The previous close calls she’s had swarm to the forefront of my mind, and the worst possible scenarios vie for my attention. All of our wards are still in place. What could get past them?