Authors: Lucienne Diver
This one has to be for my two leading men, Pete and Ty. My husband and son, the loves of my life.
“My middle name is Odysseus. Of course, growing up, they just called me Odd.”
Christos Karacis, Gypsum Valley, Midnight
Damned silly to be skulking around a campsite at my age like some Boy Scout on a panty raid. Too bad there was nothing nearly so entertaining about my situation. The Back to Earth compound had turned out to be a lot bloodier than a Scout jamboree.
I hadn’t slept in two days, ever since I’d seen what I’d seen. Every time I closed my eyes, JD’s terror-stricken face, the hot spray of his blood, the sight of his intestines spilling into his hands as they tore him apart played out in my head. Then I’d remember the way claw-like hands had latched on to keep me from lunging to the rescue, the fear that I was next, the suddenly alien faces all around me, and especially the knowledge that even if I could grab up JD’s trailing innards and shove them back in, he’d probably die of infection.
He never had that chance.
Suddenly, liberating Mara’s daughter from the cult had become a matter of life and death. By the time I’d infiltrated it, she was already inner circle. I couldn’t get anywhere near her. I was still too low on the totem pole at the winter solstice even to rate an invitation to their celebration, so it was only at the vernal equinox that I’d seen what the bacchants were capable of. And now that I had… It was possible that Casey was too far gone to save, but that wasn’t for me to say.
I had to avenge JD, if nothing else. Penance for my failure to listen when he’d cracked, started raving about wild women and cannibalism and getting
. I’d chalked the rant up to moldy rye, just the way history had for the accusations of the witnesses at the old witch trials. I’d assumed the name bacchant was an affectation chosen by someone who knew them historically as worshippers of the fertility god Dionysus—someone who didn’t know about their dark fits, the festival frenzies where they tore men limb from limb and let their blood pour out like libations upon the fields. I couldn’t accept that anyone would willfully whip his followers into madness and resurrect human sacrifice. So what in the seven hells had Dion done? Was his name just another affectation or could it be… No, I’d never believed our family tales that the old gods walked among us—Atlas with a gym franchise, Aphrodite the new Mayflower Madam and the like. Drugs or mass hypnosis ranked far higher on the probability scale than divinely inspired blood lust.
My body shuddered involuntarily at the thought, as if trying to throw it off, and I pressed myself more deeply into the shadows of the building that the solar-charged lights of the compound failed to reach, trying to hide myself from the bacchants sauntering by on their rounds. It was nearly midnight; everyone else was snug in their beds.
When they passed, I forced myself to walk as if I had a purpose. There were, sadly, a few yards of well-lit ground to cover between me and the main building—the only one with a phone so far as I knew. Slinking would certainly get me noticed. If I could pretend to be on a mission, maybe I could brazen it out.
No one stopped me on the way, but still a sense of dread clutched at my heart. Between that and the odd heat wave making the air as thick as pea soup, I was gasping like a landed fish by the time I made it to the side door of the office building. I’d never noticed video monitors—they were against the anti-technology stance of Back to Earth—but I wasn’t going to stake my life that they didn’t exist. The office phone was just barely tolerated as a necessary evil and only for the high muckety-muck, who was presumably beyond corruption. I kept my head down, my face away from where I thought the cameras would be placed, and pulled the promotional postcard I’d swiped—sixty percent recycled paper—from my pocket. I slid it like a key card through the minimal gap between the door and frame. It took three tries. Between the lack of lamination, the tight fit and the sudden weakness in my hands, I mangled two edges before I felt the proper slide.
As quietly as I could, I closed the door behind me and listened. Aside from the hoot of an owl outside, which I tried not to take as an ill omen, all was as silent as the grave.
quiet in the way only a place without the constant, accustomed hum of technology can be. The glow from outside barely penetrated the gloom, lighting my way to Dion’s inner sanctum. I crossed to his door, staying low to avoid windows, and tried my trick again with the postcard. It was a lot easier this time. I thought I might be getting the hang of breaking and entering.
Dion’s office was pitch black, without a single window for illumination. I had to feel my way to the desk and phone. Shaking, I sat in Dion’s cushy chair and dialed Detective Beverly Simon’s number by touch. I’d thought long and hard about who to call and figured that of all people, she’d listen. Plus, she could take care of herself and had the clout to get things done.
“Simon,” she answered with a voice all groggy from sleep. Longing shocked me like a sucker punch to the gut.
“Bev, you’ve got to listen to me.” I kept my voice low.
“Shh. Just listen. I don’t know how much time I have. The Back to Earth movement. Check them out. A kid’s been killed. JD something.”
God, I hadn’t even bothered to learn the kid’s full name. The fact that we didn’t use them here didn’t make me feel any better. For all I knew, JD wasn’t even his real name. He might have recreated himself as so many did on joining.
? You vanish for months with no word and then call me with a
I heard a sound, like someone testing the outer door, maybe preparing to enter.
. I’ve gotta go.”
I pressed the button to disconnect, then quickly hit random keys to prevent anyone from punching redial in case I was discovered. I didn’t want Bev in their sights. I replaced the receiver as quickly and quietly as I could. Still, the slight sound it made touching home seemed to echo in the resounding silence of the compound.
Over my own pounding heart, I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I heard an answering snick of that outer door sealing. Someone was inside with me. The footsteps heading my way confirmed it. There was only one exit from the office and nowhere to run.
“Beware embossing. It often heralds formal gowns and rubber chicken.”
—Tori Karacis, words to live by
Tori Karacis, Los Angeles, CA
The Feds and my cousin Tina’s wedding invitation blew in on the same ill wind. Truth be told, one came in bearing the other. It couldn’t be harpies or banshees or even, hell, desert scorpions. Oh no, those I could probably have handled. But it didn’t seem terribly good form to use my gorgon mojo on guys who could lock me up and lose me in the system without needing much in the way of probable cause.
Not that I was paranoid. I mean, two weeks ago I’d faced down a few gods from the old neighborhood trying to drop L.A. into the ocean just to announce their second coming. In theory, a couple of mere mortals shouldn’t be too much of a problem—assuming they weren’t here to cart me off to some super secret government lab to explore my more unusual attributes from the inside out.
“Mizz Karacis?” asked the one I was already planning to dub Little Wooden Boy simply because he reminded me of a two-thirds scale model of Al Gore.
“I hope so, I’m wearing her underwear.”
“Very original,” he answered with no discernable trace of sincerity. “I’m Special Agent Eric Holloway and this is Special Agent Ben Rosen from the FBI.” His partner, the one not holding my mail hostage, flashed a badge that I supposed was meant to be good enough for the both of them. “We need to ask you a few questions.”
And there it was…the other shoe. I’d been waiting for it to drop ever since Internal Affairs had started harassing Detective Armani…or, as I called him now, Nick. I understood why—an officer dead, Armani’s partner disappeared—but that didn’t mean I liked it. He couldn’t very well tell them the truth—that his partner, Detective Lau, had flown off on the back of a dragon who’d been awakened by a seismic blast caused by Greek gods run amok. Not unless he was willing to earn himself a trip to a padded cell on a psychiatric visa. I still wasn’t fully convinced of my own sanity, and I’d seen it all with my own eyes.
But my inquisitors loomed, awaiting an invitation to enter. I said a wistful good-bye to the idea of getting to the beach before all the good spots were taken. It was unseasonably warm for late March, and my air-conditioning just wasn’t cutting it. If I was going to bake, it might as well be to a nice golden brown. Instead, I sighed. Heavily.
“Sure, come in. Thanks so much for bringing my mail,” I replied wryly.
I held out a hand to relieve Holloway of the burden, but he walked right past me without giving it up. His gaze skimmed my sunny yellow bathing suit cover-up and flip-flops, noted the mesh bag containing my paperback and tanning supplies, and moved on to the small condo I was housesitting for Armani’s AWOL partner. My own apartment had fallen prey to Zeus’s pyrotechnic wrath. I’d packed away Detective Lau’s desiccated sea life—dried up starfish, sand dollars, sea urchins and the like—because they creeped me out. Otherwise, the place was pretty much as she’d left it, aside from the dirty dishes in the sink and a centimeter or so of dust. I wasn’t much on the housekeeping front.
“Cozy,” commented Rosen with that same lack of inflection his partner had mastered. No doubt they’d been at the top of their academy class for dry delivery. Their mothers must be so proud.
Rosen had Charlton Heston’s sandy abundance of hair, but that’s where the resemblance ended. Beyond that he was unremarkable. Dark suit, crisp white shirt, conservative striped tie, eyes that couldn’t decide what color they wanted to be—green or brown. Blending into the woodwork was probably not a bad thing for a federal agent.
I gestured them toward the relatively uncluttered conversational grouping in the living room.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked, just to be polite.
They exchanged a look that might have said
before declining in stereo.
I shrugged and took a seat, after which they took theirs, barely sinking into Lau’s militantly firm couch. Stiff, just like the missing lady herself.
“Ma’am, we need you to tell us everything you can about the events of March 6th of this year.”
. “March 6
? My schedule is at the office, so you’ll have to give me a second.” I pretended to think before answering. “I was probably checking the mail for my tax refund. I e-filed early, you know, thinking I’d speed things along, but I guess I’m just a cock-eyed optimist. Speaking of mail, can I have mine?”
Holloway eyed me keenly before handing it over. “There’s no refund check. There
a wedding invitation. At least, that’s what it looks like. Will you be bringing Detective Armani?”
I forced myself not to react as I flipped through my mail—junk, junk, flier, another bill, embossed card-stock envelope. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Rosen’s hand slammed onto the table so suddenly and untelegraphed it made me jump. “Let’s cut the crap. Last night, several people turned up dead under mysterious circumstances at the lip of a crater caused by an explosion that took place two weeks ago. Exactly two weeks ago,
made a 911 call that led to the arrest of three incapacitated men at the Le Brea Tar Pits who are believed to have been involved with the explosion. Your voice print is unmistakable. You can start telling us what you know or we can haul your ass in.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask if the rest of me could come too when I registered what he’d said. “Wait—what? More bodies?” That explosion—that had been the old gods raising a ruckus, but this was new.
The Feds exchanged another expressionless glance.
“Show her,” Holloway ordered his partner.
Rosen reached into the same jacket pocket from which he’d pulled documentation earlier and snapped a sheaf of papers down in front of me so that they fanned out across the table. I wish I could have said they were grainy or blurred, but…