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 remark, 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?” I ask to help break his mental loop.
“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, where banishers like the three of us try to send them back home.
“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?” This surprises me; 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-trunk 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 souls 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 job, 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 seems to show them moving in a pack of other girls, meaning that they wouldn’t normally be good prey for a human predator.
“Summer? Ya with us?” Lia waves 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 the way, 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 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 sailors must feel the same way—that sleeping when you can’t sense movement 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 secured by a tension rod that covers most of the window. 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 really 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 before I 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?
As I head down the stairs to the parking lot, I see the idiot I call my kid sister stepping out of our car. She waves cheerfully at me. My knees give out under me and I fall to the step, trying to slow my heartbeat.
“What’s wrong?” She has the nerve to ask. “Something after us?” She looks around suspiciously, hiding the knife she draws behind the take-out bags she’s carrying.
“Well, you’re certainly about to die,” I say when I regain breath enough to speak. “You can’t just wander out, Lia, I’ve told you. Definitely do bother me if you’re about to leave. Or at least leave a note for fuck’s sake. Jesus. I’m going to be grey by twenty-five, I swear to God.”
“I’m sorry! I saw a place down the street—thought I’d be back well within the eighteen minutes of peace I get when you shower. But then I got to talkin’ and though I may have added more grey to your head, I did get us both dinner and jobs and a few leads in under twenty minutes. I’m the best. You’re welcome.”
I stand back up and look at her warily. One of our mottos is, if it feels too simple, it’s because you don’t know everything about it yet.
“I can’t help but feel that maybe some of that isn’t the sort of news I’ll be happy about, but good work all the same.”
“Let’s eat first, and I’ll fill you in.”
I look down at the shirt that bags around my waist, and the hip bones you can see through my leggings. “Food is good.”
We go back to the room and sit on the floor with our backs to our respective beds. It may not be as comfy, but it doesn’t leave crumbs in the bed, and the one chair in every hotel room simply isn’t comfortable enough to fight over, most days.
“So, catch me up,” I say as I bite into the ham, egg, and cheese sandwich she brought me back. We’ve found that after several days of packaged food, easing back in through things like breakfast sandwiches is for the best.
“Hang on, let me get a bite, too.” I nod and we fall into contented silence again while we enjoy something that has exactly zero soy or chia in its ingredient list.
Soothed by carbs and cheese, I let out a sigh of contentment and allow some of the tension I didn’t realize I’d been carrying to release. I fix Ophelia with a patient stare while I wait for her to finish her sandwich.
“Okay. So the four girls are all part of Chi Kappa Kappa, which we may also be in, Idaho U. chapter.” She looks at me contritely.
I wave aside the implicit apology. “Suspicious. Go on.”
“They all disappeared after a night out…bar, mixer, kegger, bar.”
“And, a couple of the girls at our new place of employment know all of them and saw them the nights they disappeared!”
“Hella convenient,” I allow, impressed at the break. “So, what’s the job?”
“Oop—I almost forgot! I got muffins! Coffee cake or chocolate chip?”
Muffins are my kryptonite. The timing of the offering should put me on guard, but I can’t help it; she’s gone right for my weak spot. It’s almost like she knows me.
“What the hell kind of question is that? We split them, and each have half of both.”
We navigate splitting the muffins seriously, using the age-old customs that separate the cutter from the chooser and settle back down to enjoy our treats.
“So,” I begin again, maw crammed with muffin. “What’s the job?”
She clears her throat. “Ah, beer tub girls?”
I lean back against the bed, staring at the ceiling above her head.
“Beer tub girls,” I repeat, trying the words out loud. Ophelia watches me carefully. We’ve done almost every menial job on the market out of necessity, but there are definitely some I prefer to avoid. Jobs involving hot pants, like the ones held by girls who pour beer and dance on platforms, being one of those.
“It’s sort of perfect, if you think about it,” she says as the silence stretches. “We get to mingle, see their Greek sisters, observe the big players, make pretty good cash…”
I nod along, still looking at the ceiling.
“And it’s not forever,” Lia concludes.
I look her in the eye. “Beer tub girls.” She fakes a too-big smile. “Well, that’s just super.”
The next day we get up and decide to scout out the campus, particularly Greek Row, where all of the fraternities and sororities keep houses.
“You ever miss not going to one of these things?” Lia asks me as we walk onto the quad.
“A campus? Lia, we’ve been to all fifty states. We’ve seen dozens of campuses. It’s not exactly new territory.”
“You know what I mean.”
When most of my peers were sitting for SAT’s and visiting local universities, I was tracking and subduing a vampire pack that had been looking to recruit Ophelia. When others in my graduating class came home for Christmas after their first semester at college, I was fighting to get one of my sister’s friends away from a counselor who turned out to be feeding on her night terrors. You really can’t expect any better from Germanic nightmare monsters.
I look at her and smile. “Nah. We’ve probably listened to more lectures than any of these sheep ever have, about more subjects than they’ll cover by their third change of majors.” I look around at the students sitting on the lawn, throwing Frisbees, repeating conjugations or arguing over last week’s insert-network-cable-show-here. “Plus, I’m only twenty-four. If I want this, I got time.”
We walk on in silence for a minute. “Why—do you?” I ask her.
She laughs again. “Yes. A place with lots of people who probably remember their childhoods, all running around talking about how they’re gonna start really living life once they ‘make it.’ Totally my scene,” she says sarcastically. “I’m already an artist, I don’t need people trying to learn to be like me to tell me how to be me.”
“That was a super bitchy art thing to say,” I tease as we walk up to the house for Chi Kappa Kappa. “I’d graduate you.”
I gotta say though, it is true about the artist thing. Lia’s sold around three thousand dollars’ worth of her work over the past couple of years. If we could sit still long enough to make any connections, she could probably do her own gallery show.
I ring the doorbell, and a lanky brunette answers the door.
“Can I help you?” She asks.
“Hi! Me and my little are visiting my cousin here, and I had to stop by the local chapter!” I exclaim, introducing Lia as the new sorority pledge my persona is mentoring. “Summer, Chi Kappa Kappa, Idaho U chapter.”
“Oh, yay! I’m Katie, come on in!”
We enter the old Victorian house into a vibrantly green foyer.
“Great house,” I say, taking in the shockingly hued rooms radiating off the central hall. Lia raises her eyebrows significantly at me from behind Katie’s back.
“Aw, thanks! We have a couple sisters who are design majors? So every year one room gets an update. Taking into account, of course, the aesthetics of the sisters who all live here.”
“Oh, of course,” Lia adds brightly.
“This is my little, Lia.” We’ve decided to play this as sorority sisters rather than biological ones in order to gain the trust of our most promising witnesses.
“Well the two of you must, must, must come to our mixer tomorrow. It’s gonna be awesome,” Katie says. “Seriously, though,” she gets a little less bubbly and steps closer to me. “It’s sort of a bad time for the chapter. If you’re new, I wouldn’t want you getting into trouble.”
“What do you mean?” Lia asks.
“I mean…” Katie’s face falls. “I mean that four of us are missing right now…I don’t know who could do this. Chelsea and Brittany have been missing for almost a month.”
“Oh my God, that’s horrible,” I say. “What happened?”
“We don’t know. They all went out, people saw them throughout the night, they said they wouldn’t be home that night, and none of them have been seen since.” She looks at us worriedly and I put my hand on her shoulder. “It’s been a really sucky time overall, but especially if you wanna get lucky,” she adds with a small laugh that turns into a shudder.
We commiserate a little longer and head back out into sunlight with promises that we’ll try to come to the mixer.
“Missing a month. That doesn’t sound great,” Lia remarks once we’re out of earshot.
“No joke. Kinda doesn’t sound like it’s our sort of thing after all. Maybe we should call in one of those people who interview serial killers.”
“Oh God, I hope we don’t need Charlize Theron or Tom Hardy to play anyone for the movie based on this.” Lia looks at the time on her phone. “Shit. It’s almost three, I told the manager that we’d both stop by to fill out paperwork and pick up our uniforms.”
“If it’s not our kind of deal, do we still need to show up for uniforms?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you have some sort of emergency snub-the-tub money squirreled away somewhere I wasn’t aware of? Or perhaps you’ve converted the car to breathatarianism?”
“No, I ha— wait, what? Breathatarianism?”
“Yep. Some sort of new age cult that thinks that nutrients of all kinds are a hoax.”
“Darwin is right—not all of us are meant to pass on our genes.”
We head back to the motel to hooch up a little before going to the bar. Lia and I are highly trained in several key areas like firearms, hand-to-hand combat, knives and various blunt-object weaponry. I’m a licensed electrician, and she’s got a knack for tech support. We both know first aid like the back of our scarred hands. We are also both pretty good at disguises, which is the macho word for “makeup artistry.”
Ten minutes later in skinny jeans and crop tops, fully coifed and painted, we peel out to the local college sports bar, Finnegan’s. A guy out front is dispiritedly washing down the sidewalk, but stops moving the hose as we walk up. I can imagine the effect. We’re both practically the same height, around five-four. She’s let her natural curl take over, tawny hair spiraling around a face that looks like it could have been a painting itself a hundred years ago—she has milky white, flawless skin, her makeup giving her the slight impression of permanent bedroom eyes. I have straightened my hair, my sun bleached highlights shining red in the late afternoon sun. I’ve pumped up my eyelashes so that my already oversized baby blues now look big enough to dive into, my deep red shirt emphasizing the tan I’ve encouraged from long hours outside.
We flash him near identical smiles—she’s got a slightly better cupid’s bow, I’ve got slightly fuller lips, but I don’t think most people notice that distinction as much as we do.
Inside is that strange smell of disinfectant, wet wood and beer that seems to attach itself to all dive bars.
“Lia,” a man in a short sleeve black button up shirt walks up to us, smiling and taking her in. “And this must be Summer,” he says turning to me. I see that I too pass the examination. I smile like I don’t notice that I’ve just been appraised.
“Thanks so much for letting us work here, Mister…”
“Steve, just Steve,” he says taking my outstretched hand. He gives a quick look of surprise when my grasp is too firm for the normal serving wench—I mean beer tub girl. I always forget one detail. I throw in a small giggle, hoping that covers it back up. Lia shoots me a look of horror, like she thinks I may be having a stroke, which makes the laugh more genuine.
His smile widens again and he looks down at the podium to his side. “Here. Sorry girls, just some routine paperwork. You can sit at the bar and fill them out.”
We sit down and I take stock of the environment. You can see how it’s set up for happy hour now, with small high-tops giving people a place to store bags and set drinks. You can also see how those tables are meant to be moved to the edges of the floor when the bar starts really filling up in order to provide more space for awkward standing, and that there’s a separate area by the front raised platform for dancing. Around the room are four tall stools behind four enormous kegs of different beers. Our new domain.
We finish our paperwork as honestly as we can, sometimes copying answers from the other that seem more plausible, finessing responses to questions like “have you ever been arrested” and “were you ever fired?” Our lives are just a little too shades-of-grey to fit neatly into small boxes on such simple things as applications.
We finish our signatures ten minutes later as Steve comes back with a Lycra monstrosity that would make Hooters waitresses blush. It’s gonna be ever so much fun hunting monsters with my pants trying to cut me in twain.
“And uh, not that I’m saying anything about how you look, but the other girls advise that dressing to impress leads to noticeably greater tips, so, keep that in mind.” Steve looks at his phone. “Damn, we’re actually opening in half an hour, do you want to stick around? Get the tour, shadow some of the other servers through happy hour?”
“We would love that,” Lia quips, grinning with bewildered amusement at the uniform and back at me.
I give her a sour look, and we head to the bathroom to change. I start to put mine on, but my legs are pretty well scarred. Nothing too disfiguring, but there are small white marks that cover my knees, and an obvious animal scratch on my left calf, most noticeably. So, I make a covert trip to our car and fish around in the detritus that seems to accumulate in all lived-in vehicles. Bingo.
Soon, I meet up with Ophelia in the central powder room. While her obsession with sunscreen makes her look a little spooky in daylight, in the dim lights of a bar, in a black leotard and Converses, she looks like she’s never met a manticore, or dug herself out of a cave. I, on the other hand, have had to put on fishnets to mask the fact.
“Wow, really playing up the flash-dance stripper look, huh Summer?”
“Bite me, Ho White.” I scowl at my reflection in the mirror. “Oh, awesome. Aaand it’s basically see through.”
“Only when the fabric is stretched that much. Damn girl, those real?”
“Why are you so gross? Also, be careful how you bend over, I think you may be experiencing a similar problem on the flip side, but at least my exposed bits are used to seeing daylight.”
It’s too much, and we both start laughing. She comes to stand next to me in front of the full length mirror while we look ourselves over. I, for one, am thankful for the roadside yoga and for the fact that this feels like a costume.
“I pick the job next time,” I say after a moment of quiet reflection.
“Maybe not the worst idea,” Lia says mournfully. “Sorry. But now we’ll have a bitchin’ story. Selfie!”
“Ophelia, NO!” Before I can finish protesting, the picture is taken.
“Maybe this can be September’s text-to-mom-so-she-knows-we’re-alive.”
“A good plan, if matricide is your end goal.”
Once we’re done confirming the worst of our suspicions about this job, we head back out to the floor where other girls are sharing in our humiliation with a lot more grace. Not to be outdone, we get it together and meet up with Maggie, who is to be our tour guide for the evening. She gives us the rundown of the place, which is like every other bar, honestly, and hands us both a tray of shots as the first of the happy hour crowd start trickling in. As she does, I notice that the charm bracelet around her wrist has the Chi Kappa Kappa emblem on it. I pass the message along to Ophelia in our secretive sister language. I don’t really know what to call it, but you probably know what I mean—that combination of motion and meaning that allows you to pass information along unspoken with someone close to you.
She nods understanding and we both start mingling. This not being our first rodeo, though definitely our most exposed one, we do well, and soon our trays are empty. We circle back to the bar, where Maggie is chatting with a bartender.
“Out already?” She asks, looking at both of us. We fork over the cash we’ve collected.
“Heavy drinking crowd,” I add by way of an explanation.
“It totally reminds me of that party at pledge week last year, remember Summer?” Lia begins.
It’s amazing how many of our work skills could be picked up in an improvisational comedy class.
“You’re so right! Put grain liquor in enough Jell-O, and you can off-load shots like candy.”
“You’re both in Greek life?” Maggie asks.
“Yeah, we’re visiting Chi Kappa Kappa,” Lia says, flashing her own pledge pin. I look incredulously at her. What happened to “not stealing?”
“No way! We’re Chi Kappa Kappa,” Maggie explains, motioning to the bartender.
The bartender comes over and we spend a few minutes bullshitting.
“Let me reload, see if the masses are thirsty again,” I say. Lia signals her understanding of my unspoken intent again and helps me refill the tray.
I go back on the floor, working the tables, pandering mercilessly for tips. My mama always said, never half-ass a job. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’s never said the word “ass.” And I’m not sure if that advice applied to jobs where literally half my ass was showing. But the work-ethic of our adolescence is hard to beat, is what I’m trying to say.
Lia eventually rejoins me on the floor.
“Learned some stuff,” she mutters to me as she passes. We begin an intricate dance, passing each other at every other table.
“You mean like pick pocketing?”
“It’s not stealing if I intend to give it back before it’s missed.” She sniffs snootily. “At worst, it’s conversion.”
“You watch too much Law and Order.”
Over the course of the next ten minutes, I learn that both the bartender and Maggie were with each of the girls the night they disappeared. They mentioned dark haired men with devilish eyes and lean bodies that met up with each victim, and with whom each girl intimated she was intending to spend the night.
“So it could be one or two guys?”
“Definitely between one and four guys, so far,” Lia confirms.
“Well, those are good odds. Do we think ‘guy’ guy, or…” I leave the rest of the sentence unfinished, wary of anyone who may be listening.
“I’m not so sure any more. I think we should try to look at the tapes.”
Ugh. Security tapes. Usually, our inconspicuous personas are valuable. People remember talking to the cops, or some other authority; no one remembers another waitress. But sticky things, like autopsy reports, security tapes, and other secured information require a higher pay grade than the one we’re clinging to, most days.
“Okay, first things first. We gotta see if Steve has them or if the bouncers are independent security.”
“Done.” My sister turns on her heel and goes up to one of the guards off to one side, making instant conversation. I would normally classify her as sort of shy and introverted, but give her a situation where she feels like she’s just playing a part, and she’s the feistiest flirt in a hundred miles.
She laughs coyly and walks away from the guard, shaking her head minutely. “Nope,” she mouths silently.
It is on me, then, to work in close proximity to Steve. After a few minutes of pretending that I’m pretending not to notice him as I work, he comes over to me.
“Hey! Just checking in. You and Lia doing okay?” I try to smile what I would imagine comes off as gratefully, but who the hell really knows. I’ve got no poker face. It seems to work though, and he smiles back.
“Um, I think so! I’m a little nervous though that table seventeen maybe left without paying…do we have tape?”
“Very thorough,” Steve says, his eyes beginning to wander a little south. I try to keep my smile going but ugh…sometimes my work requires more effort than others.
He motions for me to follow him towards the back of the restaurant, and I allow myself a therapeutic grimace once his back is turned.
By the cash register there are a few cycling camera feeds, and a shelf of DVD’s labeled by the date. “So to watch the tapes, you just control it like this…” Steve presses a few obvious buttons, using it as a pretense to slide closer to me. I am going to punch Lia when our shift is over.
“Okay! Think I got it!” I try to sound like I really learned something from him, and while he seems to buy it, another waitress turns to me when he leaves.
“Think you can remember all that? Fast forward? Stop, rewind, play?” She asks teasingly.
“Why, however will I manage?” I ask in my best Scarlett O’Hara impression.
Once she leaves, I quickly switch the tape to the one from most recent abduction, and fast forward until I find footage of Melanie, the girl in question. I watch it at increased speed as she and her friends drink a surprising amount of alcohol for a bunch of people who weigh maybe a buck twenty sopping wet. I speed it up a little more as I watch some peel off to dance, as men walk up with pick up line swagger, and there! Finally. Someone dark and lean coming to talk to Melanie. Even on grainy security footage, it’s clear this guy is denim-wrapped sex. I’ll take two, please, serial killer or not.
The waitress who had seen me looking at the footage earlier starts to walk back towards the cash register, so I quickly switch the DVD back and duck out of the area.
“So? Everything all right?” Steve asks right in my ear. I jump involuntarily and then force myself to laugh, uncurling the fist that automatically springs up when I’m startled. “Oh, yeah! Looks like Maggie got the tab and I just didn’t see! I’ll double check that from now on.”
He claps my shoulder and moves away to handle something else that’s caught his attention.
I think about the video feed. Not to disrespect the many fine human specimens out there, but it’s my experience that beings that pretty are usually more thing than human. Especially if they’re in some place like Finnegan’s in Roanoke, Virginia.
Which means the hunt is on.
Around ten o’clock we’re told that training is over and since we’re new, we can go home for the night. This is good news to me because the heeled booties I’d decided to wear today were not what I was intending to work in. Ah well. Blisters are a small price to pay for looking good—and I did look good.
“So, where do we find mystery hottie?” Lia asks after I fill her in.
“Well, he and or his co-conspirators are obviously lurking around liquid courage, so we should keep staking out Chi Kappa Kappa events and Finnegan’s. Seems more than likely we’ll be able to spot him eventually.” I think for a second. “But I’d still like to know more. If he’s a booga baddie, what flavor? Even which pantheon he hails from would be helpful.”
“I feel like it says something that ‘hot, abducts women’ isn’t really that helpful a clue in the puzzle.”
“We don’t know if they’re being abducted. They could be eaten, for example. Or turned or…yeah. I want more information.”
I mull it over, thinking of next steps.
“Well, there’s nothing for it. I think we just need to watch Chelsea’s tape,” I say, flashing the disk I’d managed to lift before leaving.
“And you’re gonna lecture me on stealing?” She scrunches up her face, examining the uniform. “Where the hell did you hide it?”
“Ask no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“No but seriously….”
We enter our room and I go straight to my laptop, preparing to watch the disk from four weeks ago. Ophelia comes and lounges next to me as I fast forward until the Chi Kappa Kappa clique shows up.
“Can you imagine if all of our ‘friends’ went to a bar together?” She asks absently.
“Lord. It’d be end times. Cthulhu would be upon us.”
She looks at me searchingly.
“You…you don’t actually think the elder gods are based on something real…right?”
I shrug noncommittally. “Dude, I have no idea. I ain’t borrowin’ trouble. In the meantime…what do we make of this?” I slow the video back to normal speed as a lean, dark haired man walks up to the woman who appears to be Chelsea. He looks slightly different than the other guy I’d seen, but they could be brothers, or cousins. There’s definitely a resemblance in build, and animal magnetism.
“Daaang! I can feel his pheromones caressing me from four weeks and a camera screen away,” Lia observes.
“Why do you always have to take things to a weird place?”
“Like you wouldn’t do nau—”
“Please, if you ever want to thank me for saving your ass so many times, do not finish that sentence.”
I let the recording run through. “Hmm…”
“See something?” My sister asks. I go back through the footage again.
“Two things seem weird to me. First, look at what happens when he first touches her arm.”
I play the recording again. They’re talking, obviously flirting. He leans in to say something to her, his hand resting chastely against her bicep. From the moment his skin makes contact with hers, she goes limp. Her left hand gravitates to his waist, almost possessively. When he pulls back away, she sways, like he had just planted the world’s best kiss on her.
“Is she drunk?” Lia asks.
“I mean, maybe, but either the booze just hit her all at once, or there’s something else going on.” I watch it a few more times, trying to see if I can see some sort of needle, or spray, or hypnosis—really any sort of tell-tale for what could make her suddenly dissolve into a puddle.
“Hey. You’ve watched that like fifteen times now. If it hasn’t changed the past five times, can you please tell me what the second thing was you found weird?”
“Oh, right.” I let that pot simmer on the back burner a second and fast forward to the new couple leaving. “Watch him walk.”
Ophelia tilts her head a little. “Mm-mm.”
“No—come on, horn-dog, get it together. Watch him walk like you’re a detective, not like you wanna be his next vic.”
I rewind and we go through it again. He’s got swagger, capital “s”, but it doesn’t seem to be just his Brad Pitt-like heat.
“Looks like his shoes don’t fit,” my sister comments.
“Yeah, or something like that,” I agree.
“And we’re positive that this guy is actually a monster in the literal sense?”
“Only fools are positive, Lia. But I’m fairly convinced that this is a monster, yes.”
“And you think the shoe thing is relevant to learning his make and model?”
“Since it’s all we’ve got right now, might as well add it to the suspect profile.”
Ophelia nods. “So, then our inquiry is limited to creatures that can intoxicate and have small or misshapen feet,” she summarizes. We reflect on that a second.
“It’s more than we had before,” Lia says, watching the video one more time. “I mean, there’s still lots of those. Satyrs, several types of fae, a vampire with broken feet.…”
It’s my turn to look at her quizzically.
“You don’t know. We can’t go crossing off theories yet,” she responds defensively.
The next day, we let ourselves sleep in a bit. I’m feeling a bit better rested than I have been in a while—think I even got a REM cycle in there with only a few nightmares. Things are coming up Summer for once.
We decide to go to a diner for breakfast. My first cautious sip of coffee reveals it to have been made by someone who didn’t hate coffee beans. Another score.
“So, dude with weird feet and some sort of soporific, or contact high-like ability,” Lia reflects as I do a little happy wiggle at my coffee. I even put just the right amount of cream and sugar in. Manna from heaven.
“Yes. Looks like a man, mostly, and aside from the intoxication part, doesn’t seem to change the environment around him very much. That means I think we can safely put the Shinto and Germanic pantheons aside for now.”
She nods. The Shinto pantheon of course have their gods and goddesses, but the kami are forever doing things like pissing rivers into existence, or infecting an entire room with merriment or wrath, or whatever it is they embody. The Germanic pantheon, on the other hand always looks evil, only just managing to appear humanoid: vampires and crones and gnomes, oh my.
“So, Nordic, Celtic, Greek…What do we think of the various aboriginal pantheons: Maori, Incan, et cetera?”
“Eesh. Let’s hope not them,” I say. Most of those groups may be a little “smaller” in terms of current influence in these United States, but they make up for it in the amount of gore they produce when they do show up. “But we should also keep Mesopotamian and Hindu on the table. I think we can also put the rest of the African based pantheons to the side on this one…seems unlikely any of these girls have ancestors who may be disappointed in them.” I pause and waffle a bit on that assessment. “Well, not ancestors from that side of the school yard, anyways. And, as there is not a trail of obvious death, it seems likely the various African creator gods didn’t directly intervene. So, yeah. Nordic, Celtic, Greek, Mesopotamian, Hindu seem the five most conspicuous on this pass.”
“You thinking a god or just some sort of lower thing? Or could it be some local talent, maybe?”
I shrug. “I mean, odds are it’s not a god. Four girls in a month is pretty bad, but if it was Zeus or something, I think we’d know. He sort of has a fetish for getting caught.”
“Subtlety is not one of his names,” Lia agrees. “I think I’m with you, but that might be mostly because I hope it’s not a god. That feels over our heads.”
I don’t disagree. It’s one thing to know the stories and modus operandi of the pantheons’ bigwigs, and another to deal with them direct. I’m really hoping not to have to fact check the myths personally for a while yet. The fewer gods in my day, the better, I always say.
“And as far as it being something local, I suppose it could be any of dozens of pantheons, technically. But I’d like to focus our search on big players now and if we bust, we can start digging into more regional pantheons,” I add in response to her second question.
“Look at you, being all rational and sleuth-like,” she teases.
“Shut up and eat your pancakes.” She gives me a wicked smile and purposefully steals the first bite of my omelet. “You really put the ‘ass’ in ‘sass,’” I inform her while she giggles gleefully.
After breakfast, we take care of a few errands and head to the university library to research. We cross reference things on the internet with whatever mythology we can find on the creature we’re contemplating in the shelves. The list we come up with is overwhelming, but it allows us to begin finding most probable types of weapons and rituals to take care of whatever it turns out to be.
It’s Friday, and the Chi Kappa Kappa mixer is this evening. We don’t have to work again until tomorrow, so after getting a couple of meals to go, we head back to the motel room to get ready.
I can imagine a world in which getting ready just means trying on clothes, curling hair, pre-gaming…. It’s a little more intensive for us.
“Lia, what are you doing? Don’t get dressed yet, we have to make a few shot gun shells, and get together spell components and….”
“I was gonna get ready and then spend the rest of the time preparing.”
“Yeah, but then you’re gonna get machine grease all over your clothes,” I remind her.
We gather things, magpie-like, as we travel. We’ll take a job at a machine shop, and gather all the iron shavings as we sweep up. Or, we’ll sell jewelry at a store with a jeweler on premises, and collect the silver dust. We’ll take chicken bones, and goat blood from working at a butcher shop—another job low on my list of favorites—and so on. Ammo is expensive, and a traveling forge is sort of generally impractical, though it would be useful. We have to be frugal in our armaments.
The two of us sit on the floor in our scrubby clothes, a tarp over the carpet, and begin loading plastic shells with various scraps of metal, herbs, potent woods, and buckshot. It’s sort of like penicillin for getting rid of monsters: it works for a lot of the things we see, most of the time, and with fairly good results. The rest of the time it’s either useless or pisses the thing off, and then we know we’re really in trouble.
We load up on rings. We’ve been really grateful that knuckle rings and stacking rings have become popular, because it allows us to walk in with what are essentially brass knuckles for monsters without being made by the local civvies. Obviously, getting close enough to punch a monster is less than ideal, but so is jail, or stray bullets in a house made of drywall.
Lia and I double check our spell pouches, and prepare a few wards and distraction spells ahead of time. Witchcraft ain’t hard, really. You don’t need special skills or magic powers, but it is a very exacting science. Off brands do not cut it. If it asks you to skin a cricket, a grasshopper will not do, nor will an unskinned cricket. So, we try to do things in bulk that are hard to screw up and are generally applicable, like the basic charms we’re working on now. Once we complete our hexes, we each pick one small gun, one small knife—silver for me, bronze for her—and a fresh bottle of smelling salts. With that out of the way, we are ready to start coordinating outfits.
One of the good things about working at Finnegan’s is that it’s really cut back on the research we have to do to play our role as sorority girls. Having had several hours to observe appropriate local fashion yesterday, Lia cuts up a t shirt that we had been using as a rag for the car. Now a backless, distressed-looking piece of couture, she pairs it with a mini skirt and her combat boots. Her spell pouch and other weaponry go in a purse, flounce the hair, voila. I told you she’s an artist.
I lay out every shirt we own on my bed and stare at them, hoping they’ll do something new if I practice mindfulness at them. When they don’t manifest into something exciting, I sigh.
“Fuck it,” I mutter as I pick a flowy blouse over jeans. Lia charitably comes over with a necklace to help make me look put together, at least. While I probably won’t turn heads in this get up, I am able to strap on another knife under the blouse. I’ll just have to remember that my persona only goes for one armed hugs with the right arm so that no one asks awkward questions. As ready as we’ll ever be, and as fashionably late as we dare push it without risking having the monster get the jump on us, we drive over to the Chi Kappa Kappa house. I surreptitiously leave a small ward against the car so that no one feels like investigating it or really being near it at all. If we need to leave in a hurry, I’d prefer that we didn’t have to explain what honking signifies to drunken college kids.
We join the throng of excited young humans lining up to get into the house. I feel a small sense of relief when I realize that we do in fact “fit in.” I know that shouldn’t really be important to me when we’re chasing something that’s stealing girls, but I can’t help it. I’ve been the weird kid so long, sometimes it’s nice not to have to worry about keeping up appearances. I then remind myself that blending in is also practical. We do still have employment here that does in fact pay pretty well and that I’d like to keep for the immediate future. Also, the less talk about us, the fewer conversations with people who maybe have slightly less favorable stories about our behavior. I am all for that kind of anonymity.
Inside, the rooms and halls painted electric shades of the rainbow are subdued by the seething masses of college kids swarming through them. From our first contact with the sweaty humidity that rushes to greet us, Lia seems to withdraw. The house music is loud, the drunken laughter louder. It all seems to be such a forceful demonstration that everyone’s having fun and living that there doesn’t feel like there is space for us to participate. I grip her shoulder and make a face at her to set her at ease.
“Not here to meet people,” I yell in her ear. “Don’t think about how weird it is, let’s try to find the guy. Do you wanna check the rooms or watch the door?”
“Door.” I give her a thumbs up and a reassuring smile. I make a beeline to the room where the booze lives. I survey it, checking out every guy around to see if he could be the mystery murder creature.
I turn towards the voice and see Katie. “You made it!” She says with a smile, coming in for a hug. I shift uncomfortably to angle my right arm towards her and go in for a dainty, little “don’t touch me” hug.
“Yeah! Thanks for the invite,” I say before she has time to determine if that was strange. “Everything going okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. We’re sort of on lock down, so I don’t think anyone’s planning on leaving with anyone tonight or anything, and we’ve told all our friends about the guy we think is doing it, so everyone’s sort of keeping an eye out.” She shrugs. “Troubled times…”
“Definitely. It seems smart.” I move up in the line for the keg of the worst beer ever produced for money, and wince at the prospect of consuming it. I’m not even sure why they sell it in kegs—or more to the point, why someone would purchase a keg of it. What, was Walmart out of fruit punch and rubbing alcohol? I sigh inwardly. I guess at least it’s a surefire way to know I won’t get drunk on the job.
“But you haven’t like…seen him tonight, have you?” I ask.
She grimaces. “He’d have to be pretty friggin’ thick to come to a party here. I mean, even campus security is hanging around tonight. This sort of thing looks really bad for the school, too.”
I nod sympathetically. I’m saved from having to make further small talk as she gets pulled into the shriek-y embrace of one of her friends. After I get the fermented seltzer they’re handing out, I circle through the adjacent room. Finding nothing, I bring Lia her consolation prize. She sniffs it.
“What’s it supposed to be?” She asks.
“A potion most foul that makes strong men weak, and wise women regret.”
“Bottoms up, then.” She takes a swig and purses her lips. “I think it’s working. I already regret.”
“Jesus, yes. Saw lots of things. None of them panty-dropping monsters, though,” she replies.
“Ah, there it is. I was wondering how long we could go before you would make me uncomfortable.”
“Tits. Butts. Tongues.”
“You’re so childish. Stop naming body parts. Eyes glued to the door. I’m going to go finish snooping.” I suppress a shudder as I walk away—I think younger siblings must have some sort of gene that allows them to gross out their older sibs.
The rest of the house is like the first two rooms, in that they are full of morally questionable young adults, but there are no inhuman monsters apparent. Sadly, there aren’t even a few hot dudes to ogle while I wait. I wonder if it’s them or if I’m just spoiled by the memory of the monster from the security feed? Or worse, what if I’m just too old to see them as anything other than adorable little kids? I knock back some more of the beer at that thought and go to check the situation outside.
The back patio appears to be reserved for smokers and people who are a little closer to consummating the mating dance of our species. We are sickening when we think we’re in love. I make a mental note never to share a chair with a guy at a table with three other couples also pretending that they’re alone. Sadly, it seems that this is where all of the pretty boys went, and it’s already working for them. Only one of them has the same sort of hair and facial structure as the perp I’m after. He’s sitting, so I can’t see his build. His long legs are hidden by a table, meaning that I also can’t see the feet he almost certainly has. I decide to do a stake-out. I feel my earring, and it’s just a little warmer than the air, which isn’t really a great indicator. This charm is aces for things that mean to come kill me immediately, but it has a fairly limited field of attention, and a broad definition of the meaning of harm. It can tell me if Jack the Ripper has it out for me a block away, loud and clear. But if it’s just something not nice happening to someone else near me, or even if it involves daily danger, like passing someone who’s texting and driving, it gives off a little worried energy. So it’s not worth getting upset over a lukewarm earring.
-Outside. Got a guy who matches the profile. I send the text.
-Need back up? Lia replies almost instantly.
-No, not yet. Just checking, but I do not think it is him.
-Okay. Let me know if anything changes.
I send a thumbs up emoji and walk over to the circle of hazy cigarette smoke.
“Hey, got one I can bum?” I ask the first guy I see notice me.
“Yeah, sure.” He flips me a red and offers a lighter.
“Thanks.” I inhale, trying not to let it go to my lungs too much. The last thing I need is an addiction to something as expensive as cigarettes, but damn are they nice. I move slightly so that I can keep an eye on the guy.
“Nice night, huh?” Cigarette guy asks.
“I’m Ben.” Oh, right. Quid pro quo. Damn you, cigarettes.
“Summer.” I shake his hand and move again so that when he inevitably keeps talking, I can pretend to listen and still watch the guy who is getting…wow. “Frisky”, I guess is the euphemism.
“You Chi Kappa Kappa?”
“Uh, yeah. Me and my little are visiting from Idaho.”
I really dislike the beginning phases of the human mating ritual. I try to make it clear that I don’t like his feathers or whatever it is that humans use to distinguish good mates from bad ones, but he is persistent.
I get roped into a long conversation about the differences between Idaho and Virginia, mostly because Brett…no, Bryan? Ben! Ben is getting suspicious at how much I’m staring past him towards the frisky couple. More than I don’t want him to figure out what I’m doing, I don’t want him to think I want to occupy the next available chair with him.
Eventually Girl Frisker comes up for air and—whoa. She’s actually pretty pretty. Good for them. I recover from seeing a Megan Fox clone and try to see his face. I’m in luck; I’m able to get a full visual when she whispers in his ear. He nods and stands up, his hands never leaving her. He shivers for the millisecond it takes for his arm to gap wide enough to put around her shoulders. Man. I hope he can keep it loaded ‘til go time. Standing, I can tell that he’s not our guy. He’s taller, and while he’s hulky, he’s not all sharp lines like the guy on the security camera. Watching him walk confirms my judgment that this was a false alarm. Though handsome and tall, he walks with a shuffling gait that speaks to long years attempting not to seem his real height.
Well, that was a bust. I think for a second about the Megan Fox girl. Yep. That was a bust.
“Well, thanks for the smoke, Brent,” I say, cutting him off.
“Oh uh…yeah. Sure. Do you wanna maybe meet up later or…?”
“That’s sweet, but we’re not in town that long and I gotta go meet my little so…” I grind the rest of the cigarette under my foot and run inside before he can think of something else asinine to say. I should feel bad for treating him like that, but I really don’t. Unwanted, prolonged chitchat is just the pits. Maybe I’ll take another shower when we get back to the motel to wash the awkward off.
Inside, Lia is doing her best impression of a coat stand, miserably sipping her drink and scowling at the door. Her relief is palpable when she sees me.
“Nah, the dude wasn’t our dude. But not a bad specimen. He left with a Megan Fox.”
“Ugh, the Megan Foxes get all the specimens. We can go?” She asks hopefully.
“Please.” We start moving for the door, pushing past the throngs of Chi Kappa Kappa’s dearest, most trusted hundred or so friends.
“This feels…wrong, somehow,” I say once we get back to the safety of our car.
“The baddie’s taken a girl a week for the past month. What, is he full? Mischief managed?”
“Maybe he didn’t see anyone his type tonight. Maybe he was at another party.” Her shoulders slump as she brakes for a stop sign. “No, please don’t make us,” she pleads.
“You said it, not me.” I put down my window and listen for shouting or the heavy bass drum of house music. “Woooo!” Someone yells in the distance.
“Turn left,” I direct, pointing towards the sound.
We spend the rest of the night going to consecutively sloppier parties, and making a few friends along the way to help us locate any other gatherings.
At the fourth such event, the thought I’d been playing with solidifies.
“What?” Lia asks, stifling a yawn. It’s after two A.M. and we’ve had exactly zero luck finding lean, dark men.
“Her boots bother me.”
“Whose boots?” My sister asks, looking around. “No one here is wearing boots.”
“Exactly. No one is wearing high-heeled boots.”
“Summer, I’m tired, overstimulated, covered in other people’s fluids and cranky about it. What are you talking about?”
“Megan Fox wannabe was wearing heeled boots.”
“No, like late nineties, fashionably sophisticated boots.”
“And that…bothers you.”
“Well, yeah. Listen, you and I are off the grid most days, right? And even we can stay in this century. Where would you even buy boots like that now? Why would someone that hot not know about shoes?”
“Maybe honey badger don’t give a fuck, Summer. Maybe she’s cool enough to start trends. Maybe she didn’t feel like shaving. It took you three hours of obsessing to realize she’d pulled a faux pas—maybe she didn’t think anyone would notice. Maybe the dude she was with was less shallow than you.”
“Ouch. Okay, grumpy. I’m fresh out of candy bars, so I’ll try putting you down for a nap. Let’s head back to the motel.”
“Aha, an accord,” she says tiredly, heaving herself back into our car and gratefully settling in.
I don’t mention it again, but the boot thing is still nagging at me.
“Hey, Summer?” Lia breaks the silence as I park.
“Sorry about the shallow thing. I don’t actually think that.”
I get out of the car, still trying to figure out why this seems so important to me. I stop in my tracks. I arch my feet until I’m standing on my tippy toes, and mimic how the girl from before was walking.
“What are you doing now?”
I look at my sister, panic flooding through me. “We missed something big.”
I run into the motel room, and grab my laptop.
“Shh! Hang on, just a sec,” I cut my sister off. I re-watch the tape of the alleged first abduction.
“Look at his feet again.” My sister looks at me like I’ve well and truly lost my mind. “You looking?”
“Yes, Summer. As before, I see that he is walking strangely.”
“I can’t freakin’ believe it….He’s a little pigeon-footed, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess. And?”
“So was the hottie with the bad shoes.”
“And this is…related you think?”
“Yes, because on top of walking with her feet pointing in, she was doing this maneuver.” I grab a pair of Lia’s shoes. While we can share clothing, her feet are a full size larger than mine. I get up and try to walk, demonstrating the awkward gait that I can still picture the frisky girl from the party employing.
Lia watches my demonstration and then goes back through the footage. “Holy shit. And that’s what he’s doing, too. That’s what looks so ‘off’. He’s stuffing his shoes.” I nod my agreement.
“But how does that make sense? All the abductions so far have been of women by men.”
“Because, I don’t think that’s true. And I think I just let it get another kid. Dammit! Let me see the laptop again a sec?” Lia hands me my computer and I go to Katie’s Facebook page, scrolling through until I find the guy I’d initially thought might be the bad guy. His name is Shane. Shane Collins. On his page, I see a few conversations with what appear to be his fraternity brothers.
“Yo, u seen Mike?” Someone named “El Duche La Roche” wrote.
“Nah, think he went home again lol,” Shane replied. I keep scrolling.
A week earlier.
“Anyone sees Cody, tell him I got his phone. Again.” Reads another post by “El Duche,” with several brothers tagged.
“God dammit!” I curse.
“What? What is it?” Lia moves to peer over my shoulder, trying to find something obviously wrong on the page I’m reading.
“It was right there! It was totally that girl! I was going off incomplete information. Lia. It’s not just girls gone wild. I’ll bet Cody and Mike and now Shane are also MIA.”
“How can we have missed it that badly?”
“It’s really not that bizarre, I guess,” I say after I stop bashing my forehead with my palm. “A girl goes missing after a night with a guy, front page news. Face plastered all over Facebook land, hoping someone’s seen her. A boy goes missing after a night with a girl. Sounds like these guys sort of fall off the face of the planet on the regular. No one raises the alarm; or at least not as big an alarm.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah, well, welcome to America. But don’t you see? It’s perfect for a monster on the prowl. Strong willed guy who’s not gonna be missed? Cody’s been gone almost three weeks—I don’t see him on the news yet.”
I punch the bed. “Dammit!” I yell again. “I could have had the thing. Stupid Ben and his stupid cigarettes! Stupid Summer!”
“Whoa, whoa, easy. You didn’t invent sexism or missing person protocols,” my sister says soothingly. “And you totally just Sherlocked the hell out of this case. Now we know whatever it is, it’s not just one guy taking girls, and that the foot thing is more than a quirk.”
“Gee, thanks. That will make me feel so much better when I’m picturing Shane dying a slow death because I didn’t think of this four hours ago.”
“Listen, rain cloud. If he’s gonna die slow, then we’ve got time to plan an attack. I’m going to go sluice off so I don’t want to crawl out of my skin, and then we can strategize. Try to relax. We’ll find it, okay?”
I nod and rub my forehead. So much for a day that started off so well. I’m exhausted and sticky and the delightful smoke of cigarettes has turned into a disgusting ashtray aura. I want to sleep but I know that I won’t be able to with at least seven people out there in the monsters’ den.
Ophelia comes back out in a few minutes.
“So, what are your thoughts, and how can I help now?” She asks from her side of the room.
“Aside from kicking myself, I’m not really sure what to do right now. I think we should find this ‘El Duche’ guy but he probably won’t be super communicative at three o’clock.”
“Sounds reasonable. Hey. Summer.” I look over at her. “It’s not your fault. And we’re gonna find it. Okay?”
I nod at her, my thoughts elsewhere.
“Hey. We’ll take care of it. You can’t lose it on me now.”
That makes me smile briefly. There have been a few near misses in that department. “I haven’t yet, have I?” I reply wryly.
“Miraculously, no. Let’s keep it that way. So…can anything else happen right now?”
“No. No, don’t think so.”
“Okay, then…” she turns on the television and turns out her light. “Then I’m gonna get my strength for tomorrow. You should do the same.”
I act like I’m going to follow her advice, changing into pajamas, brushing my teeth. But when my sister’s eyes close and her breathing shifts into the rhythm of sleep, I continue researching. I read through months and months of all the public profiles on Facebook for the fraternity and sorority members. I Google more about the various monsters that I can think of which might fit the bill. And, when I get really desperate, I try to find ways to beat insomnia that maybe I haven’t tried before. As suspected, all that’s left now is medicine or sleep studies. Unhelpful, internet.
“Summer. Hey. Summer. It’s just a dream, wake up.”
I bolt upright and brandish the knife I keep under my pillow at the air in front of me. My eyes focus on my sister at the edge of my bed, hand on my foot. So. I guess I fell asleep at some point. I groan.
“What time is it?” I ask, leaning back against the headboard.
“About seven thirty.”
I groan again. I distinctly remember hearing birds chirping while I was still up, which means I got somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours of sleep. “Then why’d you wake me up?”
“You were having another nightmare. Looked pretty bad. You were freakin’ me out, even.” She looks at me as if she’s trying to diagnose me. “Do you remember it?”
“Why, did I say something?”
“Nope. As usual, you just sort of thrashed around and looked like you were screaming but no sound came out.”
I smile wanly. “No, Lia. You know I never remember. Sorry I woke you up.”
The nightmares started shortly after I realized that Lia’s memories were being stolen by one of the fae. She was little, maybe nine, so I was around twelve. My current theory is that they are either a curse put on me by the fae that tormented Lia, or that they’re the manifestations of my subconscious turning to mush when it tries to process my life experiences. Whatever they are, I try not to dwell on them. Most of the time I honestly don’t remember them when I wake up, but the ones I do are always about Lia. I’ve decided that she doesn’t need to know that.
“’Kay, well, I’m up now. I’ll go get us coffee,” my sister offers, getting up and throwing on a hoodie.
I start picking up the room a little and going over what clean things I have to wear. I don’t want to shower until I know she’s back. I know. I’m a total mom. Deal with it.
We’ve got bar work tonight, and case work today. What time to do normal people our age wake up after a party? Ten? Noon? Noon sounds safe, which means we’ve got four hours until we can do much. I check my email to see if any of our contacts have gotten back to me in the…three hours since I sent out the requests. Unsurprisingly, my inbox is still empty. Most of them either aren’t up yet, because their circadian rhythms work, or they are still working and haven’t gone to bed yet.
“Think I wanna go for a run,” I say to Lia when she gets back.
“After that night? Okay…have fun.”
“You should too,” I cajole in a sing-song to her. “You’re gonna regret it if you don’t get moving.”
“Sleep burns calories, I’ll just do that some more.”
In the end, we find something on YouTube after our coffee and do a halfhearted workout for about thirty minutes. Still better than nothing, I try to tell myself as I head to the shower.
We kill time for a couple hours—going to the laundromat, restocking on protein bars. It’s big news when we learn that our favorite brand has a new flavor.
It’s ten o’clock and we’re back in our room, flipping channels.
“Think I’m just going to take a small nap,” Lia says, eyes already closed.
“Yeah, getting up this early was dumb. And stupid,” I mutter, laying down myself.
“Yeah. This world is poo, with the waking up on weekends and the monsters.”
I sink into blissful oblivion, only to wake up precisely twenty minutes later. Fuck my life. I can’t help but agree with Ophelia this time. This world is poo.
I spend the next hour quietly resting, hoping at least to recuperate enough energy to get me through a shift at Finnegan’s. I let my mind wander but it obsessively keeps circling back to feet.
Pigeon-footed. High boots. Seductive. A race of monster that has both males and females and preys on both males and females. I can feel it staring me in the face and I still can’t see it.
I let Lia sleep as long as possible. At noon, we drive over to Alpha Psi Mu’s house on Greek Row, the fraternity that “El Duche” belongs to.
Lia rings the doorbell, and a bleary eyed guy answers the door.
“Yeah?” He says by way of greeting. Ugh. The girls at Chi Kappa Kappa have way better manners.
“Umm, we’re looking for a Mr. La Roche?” I query. The guy looks over his shoulder.
“Dan!” He yells violently. We both jump a little at the sudden onslaught of noise.
“What?” An equally loud bellow comes from inside the dingy house.
“Two chicks here to see you!” Nice. Real nice. About a minute later, thuds on the stairs indicate the arrival of Dan “El Duche” La Roche. I try to hide a smile upon seeing that he’s stopped to do his hair and throw on what was probably yesterday’s outfit, judging by the smell of fabric freshener that wafts after him.
“Sorry about that,” he apologizes, smiling at us. “Jordan can be an ass, and he’s hungover as hell.” This is obviously the moment we’re supposed to laugh, so I do. Cooperative witnesses are much less work. Lia’s laugh sounds more like she just got punched in the stomach. Laughing at things that aren’t funny is one of the niceties that I haven’t been able to re-teach her since she lost her memories.
“No problem. We actually had a few questions for you? See, Shane is my cousin…I’m Summer Collins,” I say, extending my hand. “We were at a party with him last night, he hooked up with some girl and we haven’t been able to get a hold of him since.”
Dan listens to me closely, his eyes going dark at mention of the girl.
“Sorry, ladies,” he eventually says. “Shane’s sort of a…free spirit. Kinda shitty of him to ditch his cousin like that but…”
“Well, do you know where he might be?”
He runs his hands uncomfortably through his hair. “I…don’t know where any of them go. Never been invited myself,” he says with another attempt at a reckless grin.
“Any of who?” Lia pipes up.
“Well…we’ve had a couple guys go missing. It’s pretty normal for them…Cody will sometimes disappear without his phone, and we’ll get a collect call from him a week later asking for a ride from the airport. And Mike throws like…tantrums and goes home for a while, then comes skulking back like nothing happened.”
“But…you don’t seem to think that’s the case this time?” I ask, kicking myself again for not having the sense to stick to High Boots McFrenchalot.
He shrugs and tries to look like he’s not worried. “I dunno. It’s just stretching on a little long. Even Cody’s parents have called, asking if we’ve seen him, and they’re like…real hippies. No cell phones. No cable. Spend more time in a tent than their house.”
“That’s really unsettling,” I tell him. “You can understand why I’m concerned for my cousin, then. Is there…is there some place local that he and that girl might go, if they didn’t want anyone to know?”
He snorts. “You kidding? We’ve got abandoned buildings out the ass. Hell, half the mall is empty. There are hotels and motels and trailer parks, and it’s not like it’s that hard to get from here to somewhere else….” He shrugs again. “Sorry. I wish I could help, honestly. But I don’t know where they might be, if something is even up.”
Bummer. I was hoping for more. “Well, can I give you my number, in case you hear from him or think of anything?”
We exchange numbers and I thank him for his time.
In the car, I can feel Lia glancing at me nervously.
“What is it?” I lead in.
“You’re just taking this really hard, and I’m worried about you.”
I snort. “About me? There are seven people who range somewhere between dead, undead, and dying out there.”
“And we’ll find them.”
I nod absently. “It doesn’t feel Celtic. I think I’m going to officially remove them from the list.”
“No? Don’t think they’re going under the hill?”
I shake my head. “No…the MO is wrong. If it was the Fair Folk it’d be like…people lured off from the group, or somehow ‘lost’ on their way home. Making out with a dude and taking him away is a little more vulgar than they tend to be. I’m also going to say not Hindu. I’m not seeing a connection with justice or godliness or self-actualization of any kind. Also, I could be wrong, I guess, but if the Asura were around, I think they’d have friends tagging along.”
“So, Mesopotamian, Nordic, Greek?” I nod slowly, trying to figure out how it adds up.
“I’m going to say not Nordic,” my sister muses.
“Similar to what you were saying about the Hindu pantheon. What’s the joke? What’s the lesson? Where’s the giant?”
“Fair enough. Which means it’s either a smaller pantheon, or Mesopotamian or Greek.”
“The smart money being on one of the big players,” she reiterates as she thinks out loud.
I nod again and park the car in front of the motel.
“So,” I turn to my sister once we’re back in our room. “Which do you want to get: the goat, or the incense and silk sheets?”
“A sentence not oft spoke. Since you’re offering, guess I’ll go for the things that don’t pee on other things.”
“A smart choice, and only fair, since you got the raven last time.”
“So much scat,” she whispers, her face tightened with pain at the memory.
I look over the pile of cash we took home from Finnegan’s two nights ago. It is very small, and it’s not because the bills are large.
“Welp. I don’t think this will buy us sheets, let alone a goat,” I comment.
“Do you think the Greek pantheon would accept mutton as a sacrifice?”
“Only if it was nice and lean,” I joke.
“Knew you were gonna say that.”
“But in all sincerity, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.”
“Say it, I know you want to.” My sister rolls her eyes.
“Iocaine powder!” I assert in a bad British accent. If you don’t know why that’s hilarious, I am adding you to my List of Things To Inspect In My Down Time, because you might be nonhuman.
“Is that out of your system now?” Lia asks dryly.
“For the moment, yes. And onto the grim game plan. We still don’t know what it is. We don’t have any money for the banishing ritual it will need when we do know what it is. So, I think we have to let the victims linger another day in limbo and work like hell for a good take tonight so we can end this ASAP.”
“You can really see why other people in the biz take to thievery. It’d be like playing Sims with the infinite money mod—just, way more enjoyable, with less waiting,” Ophelia grumbles.
“Yes, but I’m not ready to enter in the necessary cheat code for that particular mod into our actual life, though.”
“I am weak…”
“No, no. Don’t go there, sister-face. Come on. Have some self-respect. Put on your onesie.”
A few hours and energy drinks later, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be for our first official night as beer tub girls. We head over to Finnegan’s and help the rest of the staff set up for the Saturday crowd.
Everything starts off pretty standard. In order to be a successful beer tub girl, one must stand behind a huge keg and pour beer with maximum cleavage exposed at all times. This is apparently critical to the sale and consumption of alcohol. Lia and I are positioned directly across from each other, which is nice—it means I get to keep an eye on her without having to work too hard. I am able to perform the enormous task given to me and still adequately worry about the thing we’re chasing. I even start to get into the job a little. The energy is good in tonight’s crowd and it feels nice to be part of someone’s normal day. I’m cracking lame jokes and smiling at lamer come-ons by patrons frequenting my tub, no insinuation intended.
After a couple of hours warming to our new jobs, we’re feeling pretty good. I can tell Lia’s doing well, enjoying a little attention from the safety of her pedestal. It’s sort of intoxicating, being one of these people who have no idea what could go bump in the night. It’s loud, people are happy and ridiculous, and my sister is safe. I let myself relax a little.
Then, one of our favorite songs comes on.
I catch Lia grooving a little bit. When she eventually meets my eye, I start dancing too, a little more purposefully, if mockingly.
She issues me a nonverbal challenge and amps it up. Her keg gets a little more popular as people notice her dance moves and begin cheering her on.
Appropriate escalation is a crucial part of all fights. Dance offs are no exception. She finishes her piece and waves me back in. I stand, one foot on the stool, one foot on the keg and really start putting on a show, popping and locking, getting low. I almost forget for a second that people are watching us—really, this is just a private war between my sister and me. But then I look into the sea of faces staring at me with a mix of awe and judgment and start laughing. I tag Lia back in.
While I’ve learned most of my dance moves from television and parties, she was actually a dancer as a kid. She can’t remember going to competition or the hours she spent perfecting routines, and that causes me a twinge of regret. But she still has the muscle memory, and I’ve made sure to re-expose her to all of the dance forms she knew. So, she gets up on the keg and starts tap dancing like a modern, female, Fred Astaire—so I guess like Ginger Rogers. The crowd goes wild. I admit defeat, raising my hands in submission. She shoots me a victorious grin, arms above her head. Her cheering public bursts again into raucous applause. I’m about to step down and get back to being scenery but she makes the universal expression to ask me what I’m doing. Only then do I realize what she’s intending.
“No…no, that’s okay!” I try to communicate with her. She stomps a foot on the keg. The bridge of the song starts up and people are looking at us expectantly. She looks so happy and reckless, like the wash of faces I see staring back. My good sense wavers. Damn you, Lia. Then I laugh again and stand fully on the keg, warming up the crowd a little.
“Well then come on!” I motion to her.
Feeling a little ridiculous, I begin our syncopated routine, performed to date only in motel rooms and cornfields. After a rhythmic sequence of shakes, rolls, and claps we both step back onto our kegs. Getting our footing is a little weird—motel beds give, but they are not rounded. She begins pirouetting on hers, while I go into a bridge followed by kicks and headstands. As the song ends, she is standing with one foot on the keg, one foot straight up beside her head, and I pull up into a grueling one-armed handstand on my good side. We stick it, the bar roaring with applause and cheers. We get both feet back onto our barrels, and bow, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of our public exhibition.
Which is when I first notice Gregor, live and in person, standing in the throng of people with a stupid grin on his mangled face.
It takes a while for Gregor to be able to get up close to me, what with the sudden run on people who want beer and to tell me in varying degrees of appropriateness that they enjoyed the show. I make the most of this time, wallowing in my shame. I try to get to a point of personal acceptance. I just performed a synchronized dance to a pop song in a crowded bar, in front of a badass of legendary fame. What did I do to piss the Fates off so badly? Why can’t we ever just have fun? How is it that every time my sister and I are just being us, someone from work shows up? Clem and his untimely roadside meeting, Gregor in our bar…if there wasn’t already an agreement among the others banishers that Lia and I are hacks, there will be now. Fan-fucking-tastic.
“I didn’t realize how important dancing was for monster fighting,” he shouts in my ear when he can get close enough. I grimace painfully, unable to muster a better welcome for him.
“Oh…yeah. Lia and I are experimenting with it.”
He actually guffaws. Add “guffawing” to the list of things you don’t really know how to define ‘til you see it. Over the crowd, I see Steve waving. He gives Lia and me a thumbs up and puts his hand on his wrist, signaling break time.
“C’mon, Gregor. Wanna chat outside?”
I smile weakly and weave through the patrons to the front door. Outside, we trail away from the crowd of smokers and various drunk people until we have some modicum of privacy without looking too suspicious.
“So,” I begin. “What brings you down to Roanoke?”
“Have a job I’m trackin’ through the area. Got your email. Thought I’d stop by.” He cracks a lopsided grin. “Feelin’ pretty good about that decision, too.”
“Well, always glad to make a fool of myself for other people’s entertainment,” I say sarcastically.
“This part of the gig?”
“Well…partly. Our target’s been known to hunt in these waters.”
“But you coulda just hung around the bar if that was your plan.”
“I guess. The other part is we needed some cash.”
“Easier ways to earn a buck,” he observes.
“Not that presented themselves to us faster’n this one.”
He quirks an eyebrow. “You’re not enjoying the five finger discount?”
I clear my throat a little. “No, Gregor, no. Lia and I are sort of doing this all above board. I know. This is much more glamorous. Make sure you credit us when you make the switch.”
“Can you see me fittin’ my gut in that little get-up?” He laughs again. “Naw, ‘fraid prostitution ain’t my callin’.”
“Whoa, no one’s prostituting anything.”
“It’s mighty convenient, bein’ able to practice both arts at once,” he continues as if he hadn’t heard what I said, or the warning I had tried to convey with it.
“Listen, dude, tips are for serving food and putting up with the public for hours on end. That’s the full list of services I offer.”
“Of course. Sure your daddy’s right proud of you girls.”
I cluck my tongue impatiently. Part of me wants to get in his face for talking shit like that, but Gregor’s a scary mofo. In person, you can really see how’s he’s cultivated such a reputation. His face is more scar than skin, and he’s freakin’ enormous. Seriously. If he laid off the beer, he could probably give The Rock a run for his money. “Getting in his face” would in fact require that I get a step stool.
“Gregor, I’m workin’, man. Why are you here? Got intel?”
“Might know a thing or two,” he hedges, sizing me up. Like I said, I don’t have a poker face. I can lie all right, but trying to get my expression to convey emotions I’m not feeling is a totally different skill set, and I’m missing it. I can tell you the pen is blue when it’s black, and probably get you to believe it. Ask me to look sad when I’m happy though, and it’s game over. If ever I was fool enough to try to play cards with a professional, they’d probably know my hand, social security number, guilty-secret celebrity crush and my bank password before I’d finished counting the chips to deal in. That being the case, he can likely tell that my initial reaction was to clock him as easily as I can see that he hasn’t seen a dentist maybe ever.
“If you’re lookin’ for a pay out, this machine’s closed. Tell me or not.” I try to swallow the angry words that threaten to spill out. Humility is a virtue, after all, and I could certainly use a few more virtues as a general rule. “But I’d take it kindly if you had anything that could help us find the kids.”
“I know it’s seven people missin’. I know that whatever it is, it ain’t your garden variety spirit. And I know if you keep backin’ it into a corner, it’s gonna get messy.”
I look at the large man warily. “What are you saying? Do you know what it is? How do you know about the boys?”
He snorts derisively. “I can follow a trail colder’n a witch’s teat—even through social media. I ain’t that old. I couldn’t rightly say what it is, exactly. But I do know I been doin’ this a long time, and it smells like a bigger storm than you predict. I’m sayin’ this now outta concern, but maybe you girls should leave this one to someone who can lift a little heavier.”
That really gets to me. Sorry folks, we’re closed. No more fucks to give.
“Hey, how ‘bout you let us decide what exactly our fightin’ class is, huh? This isn’t our first match, Gregor. We’re not fuckin’ amateurs.”
“I wasn’t sayin’ you were. You did good work with those ghuls, I hear. I’m not tryin’ to take that from you. Just sayin’ this isn’t a pack of ghuls, is all.”
“Do you know what it is, or not?” I ask, gritting my teeth in a last ditch attempt to check my temper.
He clenches his jaw and purses his lips. “No.” He finally grinds out.
“Well then, I appreciate the warning. We’ll be extra careful when we find these sons of bitches and send ‘em howling back to whatever weirding will claim ‘em. Thanks for comin’ out.”
He looks ominously at me, and even as I walk away I prepare to have to deflect a swing, either physically or verbally. Most people don’t talk to Gregor like that. I definitely should not talk to Gregor like that. But more importantly, he shouldn’t talk to me like that.
“Well then, take care now, Summer. An’ watch out for that pretty little sister of yours.”
He hops back into the cab of his truck and splits before I can think what to say to that. Was he trying to be civil? Or is he threatening us? It’s hard to tell with stoic types like him. Either way, when I grow up, I’m gonna be big enough to beat it out of him.
Mad, I walk back in, looking for Lia. I would like to rant for a second, and she should hear what he said in case she can glean anything else from it. I look at her keg. Someone else is on it. I scan the bar area: no Lia. My earring is vaguely warm. I check the kitchen, the alleyway behind it, and the bathrooms. The increasingly familiar feeling that maybe this is really it, I’ve finally lost her rises uncomfortably as I approach hysteria.
“You seen Lia?” I ask Maggie and a few of the other girls. Nada. I am in full on panic mode, with five minutes left of my break.
“Hey, Steve? Where’s Lia?” I ask in desperation.
“She went on break a few minutes ago. Think she headed towards the front door.”
My eyes scan the darkened recesses closest to the door. There. I see her. Relief washes over me for a second, until the earring starts rapidly heating up. My breath catches in my chest when I see who else is with her. I begin power-walking to her as if drawn by a magnet.
His hair is blonde today, and long, tied back in a messy braid. But the body is unforgettable. The fucking monster is chatting up my sister.