Reese opened her eyes. She was laying on her back on the floor. Ran was kneeling over her. For just a moment, long, flowing hair fell around Ran’s head, tickling Reese’s face as though moved by a gentle breeze. A blink later, it was Ran’s usual short, straight pageboy. “Oh, stop.” Reese managed a wry smile up at her little sister. “Like you’ve never missed your chair before.”
Ran’s brow was furrowed, and she narrowed her eyes down at Reese.
“I’m fine. Just help me up off of this disgusting floor. Check me to make sure there’s nothing gross on my hair or anything.” Ran did as asked. Reese staged a bow at the people at the next table who were staring at her. “Long legs. Short chair. Bad aim. For my next trick, I will escape to the girls’ room, where I hope to find a shred of dignity to bring back with me.” They laughed and one of them made a joke about cutting off Reese’s drinks.
“Hey,” said Ran, quietly.
“No, really. I’m fine, sis. I think I just got a head rush. Be right back.”
Ran was not convinced. “You want to go?”
“Hell no.” Reese gave Ran a genuine smile. “It’s your birthday, and I really do feel fine.” Threading her way between the tables and other people in the pub, Reese reflected that she felt more than fine. She had been concerned for a moment that someone had slipped something into her drink, but the dizziness she felt was completely gone. No nausea, no disorientation, no hot and cold flashes. She felt energized and crystal clear.
Whatever had happened, it was done. She entered the bathroom and splashed water on her face. She looked up into her own eyes in the mirror above the sink. They glowed with life and purpose. She smiled. It was going to be a good night.
Reese did not notice how the woman two sinks down stared at her. The woman made no move that would call attention to herself from the crazily tall blond woman at the other end of the sinks. The one with eyes that glowed blue. Not just figuratively lit with personal energy, but literally glowing from within with a gentle blue light that illuminated everything. The woman feared that if that blond woman turned those glowing eyes on her that they would uncover every secret she’d ever hid away.
When Reese returned to the table, her eyes were her normal hue, and Ran had managed to fill the seat beside Reese with another man, and the three had just begun laughing at something Ran had said. Ran winked at her big sister and nodded almost invisibly to the man in the chair next to Reese. Reese winked back.
Normally, she might have bristled at her little sister trying to pick up a man for her, but it was Ran’s birthday, and besides: Ran did have good taste.
A weathered black tower, its spindly and thin fieldstones stacked like skeletons in an exhumed catacomb. The wide curve of the tower’s impossibly straight cylinder rose hundreds of feet into the sky, the jagged edges of the unmortared stones growing indistinct a few dozen feet overhead. There were no windows, no change to the patternless sides of column. Its top was lost in clouds that smothered the sky in featureless gray that stretched to the horizon in every direction.
The flat plain surrounding the tower was dotted with scrub that clung to barely enough brown to distinguish it from the melancholy sky. Besides the rough, impossible tower and the sparse, dessicated flora, the land offered no other break from rocky ground, itself another shade of grayish gray, except at the very distant horizons, other towers clutched like charred bones through the cloud cover for whatever hid beyond.
A woman stood with her hands on her hips tapping one bare foot on the stony ground. A circuit around the tower offered no door, nor were there any windows visible around its other side.
She found herself fitting toes and fingers into the cracks between the tower stones and climbing. Upward, up, up. After some time—she could not say how long—she turned her head away from irrational juxtapositions of the rock wall to find that she had progressed a great distance from the ground. From this vantage, she could see no more of the land around her than she had before she began. Clouds above, earth below. Earth below us, drifting, falling… Wait, what was that? A sound within her head.
A thought. She was so startled by the realization that she nearly lost her grasp upon the wall. Why aren’t my fingers tired? Another one. Why should thoughts be so unusual? I’m not out of breath, either.
She turned as well as she could with her fingernails clutching the stonework and looked out over the plain. She blinked a few times, slowly turning her face back to the wall before her. She frowned, furrowed her brow, and squeezed her eyes shut. I have…a name? Why should that be a surprise? What…is…my…name? She gritted teeth. I have “…a name!” she hissed through gritted teeth, her voice sounding hoarse and unused.
She turned her head again to scan the landscape finding only the same gray and gray-leeched brown for as far as she could see. One of the distant towers caught her eye. What is “…this…place?” she forced herself to ask aloud. Why was it so difficult to think, let alone speak?
A ripple caught her eye, a change in the plain below her. A flare of blood red and yellowish brown seeped through the ground a short way away. As she watched, the colors began to fade, to seep into the rocky ground, like a brief rain into desert sand.
With barely more thought than she’d given to start climbing, the woman leaped away from the tower, diving to reach the colors before they faded completely away. The air whipped her hair behind her and brought tears to her eyes as she plummeted to the patch on the ground where the colors were almost gone.
A grin of excitement stretched her lips as she saw her death or…something else rush up to join her.
My name. She laughed as she dove into the ground just as the colors disappeared entirely.
My name is Diana!
“Again? Damn it! Is the OR ready?”
Vanessa stared through the glass of the door into one of the rooms in the ER. The rooms where they took the ones who needed miracles. Gabe. He needed several.
Vanessa felt someone’s hand on her arm. She jerked her eyes down at it, but it was just a normal hand with latex-coated fingers emerging from light green scrubs patterned with Disney-styled princesses riding motorcycles.
“Miss?” The woman’s high-pitched voice carried the tone of forced patience that meant it wasn’t the first time she’d said it. Vanessa looked up into a pair of watery brown eyes set within a face that conveyed professional efficiency in spite of its abundant roundness. “Miss, you need to come with me. We need to get you taken care of. They’ll do everything they can for him, but we need to treat these cuts on you and examine you for other injuries.”
Vanessa let the woman guide her away, wondering why her own eyes were so dry. Where were the tears? Gabriel was hurt. Badly. She was no doctor, but she could not see how that shredded pile of bloody meat and exposed bone could have ever been a human being, let alone one that could possibly be alive.
Shock. She was entering shock. Or was she already there? Could you know you were in shock? Do the insane know that they’re crazy?
Nurse Portly - a faint smile touched Vanessa’s lips as she imagined her friend Ran assigning one of her “nom de 'poopes'” to the heavyset woman leading her into an examination room now - gently laid Vanessa face down after helping her out of the shreds of her clothes and into a hospital gown.
The nurse kept up a stream of wards in that same high-pitched voice that Vanessa would find highly annoying under normal circumstances. Now, it just buzzed around her like the sped-up soundtrack of a fly buzzing.
The buzzing stopped at some point, to be replaced by a nasal male voice that talked about pinching and X-rays. The “pinching” happened around her mid-back, but Vanessa could barely register the pinpricks of the needle delivering a local anesthetic. Nasal Voice had not even picked up needle and thread before getting called away for someone in more dire straits.
No, he wouldn’t be going to Gabriel. One could only fit so many bodies around an emergency room table, and at last glance, he’d been fully populated. Someone else, then. No matter. The local kept her from feeling much, but Nurse Portly apparently knew enough to stitch Vanessa back together without hesitation or uncertainty.
Vanessa began to drift as she felt her left arm pulled up, some more pinching, and turned her unseeing eyes on the skin-wrapped sausages that deftly pulled together a nasty cut on her arm that Vanessa had not even realized was there. Then she closed her eyes and knew no more for some time.
Theresa’s left eye opened to a slit. The right one was gummed shut. Why am I awake? Then she heard the answering machine beep from the kitchen, but no voice. If it’s important, they’ll call back. She settled in to fall back to sleep.
The phone immediately started ringing again, and now she noticed a buzzing that she’d thought was in her head. My pager, silent mode. Okay, important.
She tumbled out of bed, grabbed her pager and couldn’t read it. Of course not. It’s the middle of the night, and that means it’s dark, Reese. She reached over and turned on the light at her bedside. The light lanced into her skull, and she covered her eyes with her hand, the motion becoming a rub to clear away the sleep gunk holding her right eye closed. The answering machine picked up again, and she heard her own voice on the outgoing.
Theresa realized someone was in bed with her and her stomach sunk. Who did her drunken self bring home that her slightly less drunken self couldn’t recall? But no, it’s only Ran. Her twenty-first birthday was something to remember—if she could only remember it. Theresa’s own next birthday was the big three-oh, and she was not at all looking forward to it.
Reese and Ran were half-sisters, though they never thought of themselves as anything but “sisters.” This, despite the fact that Theresa was ghostly pale, rail-thin, and flirted with the six foot mark, while Miranda’s was five-feet-three-inches (and three-quarters!, Ran would never hesitate to add) of dangerous curves—and black. Well, mulatto, but the two sisters cut a striking contrast. Different skins, height, and bodies, they have the same eyes—shape, not color—cheekbones, and smile.
Their father had been married to Reese’s mother for six years (Reese was eight at the time) when their father announced that he was leaving Reese’s mother for another woman. “Announced” may be too generous a word, since the message came in the form of a letter, received a week after he left.
Ol’ Ma was a firecracker, she was, and she hunted down Dad and his new mistress. One small detail dear old Dad left out of his letter made its presence known, then: his mistress had had a baby—Dad’s, as it happened—and the newborn was awakened by Ma’s gunshots.
In spite of Ma’s legendary temper and the fact that she wasn’t particularly fond of black people (“I ain’t got nothin’ ‘gainst ‘em porch monkeys,” —Ma was a colorful talker, no pun intended— “I’m jus’ sayin’ ‘at whenever ‘ey move in, th’ whole place jus’ goes right t’ shee-it.” See? Broad-minded.), in spite of all that, even her heart was moved by the cries of that baby, my new li’l sis.
When the police arrived on the scene, Ma was bottle-feeding the infant in the living room, and crying. She may not have thought twice about shooting Dad and “his nigger whore”—never mind that she would go to prison and what about me, her only daughter—but orphaning a new and wailing little baby was too much to bear. Ma was a study in carefully neglected inherent contradictions.
She copped a plea—two counts of 2nd degree, instead of murder one, and Reese now suspected that that was only offered because the D.A. took pity on Reese’s eight-year-old self—but it would be quite a long while before Ma was allowed back out in the real world.
Gramma and Pops, Dad’s mom and her second husband (she’d lost her first to a fever while Dad was still a young boy) raised us. They were—and Pops still was—very broad-minded (the real kind) and big-hearted people. A stroke took Gramma last year. The three of us—Pops, Ran, and me—were still pretty raw over it.
So, Reese and Ran were really close—always had been. Growing up, there were those who teased the black-and-whitey sisters, but people are often better than the movies make them out to be. And worse.
Reese dialed into dispatch. “Slater.”
Twenty minutes later, Reese was swaying slightly with her trenchcoat wrapped tightly around her, clutching a cup of convenience store coffee that no amount of sugar or dairy products could have salvaged. She’d given up trying to improve its taste and poured out the mostly white mixture at the store and re-poured it black. As long as it would taste terrible no matter her efforts, she may as well maximize the available caffeine. It tasted like it was used to clean ashtrays.
She stood well into the wooded area of a park. There was little underbrush to speak of anywhere in this part of the state, but a small grove of trees were cultivated here in order to create the illusion of a nature area for the people who visited this park. Flashing red and blue lights filled the “woods” with a surreal strobe effect that did nothing for her pounding headache and less than nothing for the nausea that frolicked in her stomach. Still, the strobing lights and headlamps assaulting her from a couple dozen yards behind her were far better than when she had ran the gauntlet from the cab to the yellow tape that stretched just before her. She was glad to have gotten here before the spotlights had been setup, though she’d seen them unloading them as she passed through the parking lot.
“Lookin’ good, mama,” called a loud voice behind her, colored with a wide smile. “You must be on one of them juice diets, right? ‘Cause I swear, you are the very epitome of health, babe.”
“Parillo.” Reese’s voice held more gravel than timbre. “It’s ‘epitome,’ not ‘epi-toam.’ Your ‘mama’ moved to Florida year before last, and I wasn’t even ‘babe’ to you when we were married, let alone here and now.” Parillo settled in beside her, hands resting easily at his sides, his weight rocking lightly from his heels to his toes and back. Her rebuke was part of their normal banter, and the smile that had shone through his voice a moment ago still played at the corners of his mouth.
Typically, a divorced couple would never have been paired together as partners, but Reese and Jaime worked unusually well, together, and each compartmentalized work thoroughly from their personal lives. So well, in fact, that they had been divorced for nearly six months before their superiors were aware of their changed status.
“Aw, man!” He rubbed his hands together excitedly. “Christmas came early, Slater!” He was looking down on a cordoned off crime scene with the merriment of, well, a kid at Christmas. “You hear the rundown, yet?”
Reese shook her head mutely, taking another swallow of her coffee-flavored ash-water. She watched the technicians setting up poles and tripods around the scene for the spotlights.
“You gonna like this one. We got a young girl up at an ambulance back at the street, high school girl. She’s pretty shook up. First, the stuff that makes sense: She came down here with her boyfriend to do what high schoolers do in the woods in the dark of night. Turns out, the boyfriend was a romantic type. Had a boppin’ blanket all set up for them out here with a stash of water and shit to make her feel all cozy and relaxed for their pending uglies bumping.”
Reese sighed. “Parillo, no doubt the colorful language gets you more ladies than you can handle, but that crap doesn’t do a thing for me.” Reese met Parillo’s eyes.
Unperturbed, Parillo’s smile broke through. “Aw, Slater, it used to.”
“All right, all right. Have it your way.” Parillo took a breath and continued, “When they arrived at their shag blanket,” (Parillo pointedly ignored Reese’s glare), “they discovered that it had been commandeered by a trio of fine, upstanding hooligans. First responders found some drug paraphernalia, but we don’t know yet whether they were high or just thugs. Either way, our girl says they wasted no time disabling her boyfriend and throwing her down to the blanket talking about raping her.”
Parillo took another breath, held it a few seconds, and took another before he continued, “And then the stuff that makes no sense.” He paused another beat. “She says that one of the thugs was holding her boyfriend at knifepoint. Her boyfriend wasn’t saying much, no heroics, anyway. But then, she claims that the boy who was climbing on top of her got yanked away.” Parillo blinked, and all the gregarious humor had gone from his voice. “She said that it happened too fast for her to see what yanked him away, but in less time than it took her to scream, all the boys—the three wannabe rapists plus her boyfriend—were all gone, and she said she was drenched in blood.”
At this, the spotlights flared to life, illuminating the scene, sending light-spikes through Reese’s eyes into her brain.
There was some shredded fabric that looked like the blanket Parillo described. The sparse underbrush was torn up and scattered, and several of the trees looked like they’d been swiped by bear. Reese frowned. “Has the coroner already been here?”
Parillo shook his head. “This is all there is.”
Reese stared around the ravaged plantlife. She’d noticed the girl as she passed her, and she’d looked like she’d bathed in blood. But here, there was nothing. Not a drop of red anywhere she looked. Nor were there any bodies.
“I don’t know, Slater,” Parillo answered seriously. He pointed. “That sneaker over there still has a foot in it. That and the blanket are the only things they found so far. CSI will be here any minute, and hopefully they’ll tell us more. Right now, we’re starting from a severed foot and some broken down trees.” He shook his head. “I didn’t believe Patrolman Jager when she told me this was all there was. I figured it was just because it was dark, but…”
“Yeah.” Reese looked slowly around the wrecked grove exposed by the harsh spotlights. “Too bad we don’t record toeprints,” Reese said and let a breath out through her teeth.
Parillo pulled out his phone at the same time that Reese felt her pager begin buzzing. “When are you going to get a damn phone, Slater?” Parillo was chuckling as he spoke into his phone. “Parillo.” The smile faded. “Yep. Not much more we can do here, anyway. We’re on our way.” He pocketed his phone as he turned away from the unusual murder scene. “C’mon, we got another one. I’ll drive.”
“Mm-hm. I mean, no. Wait.” Reese frowned and cocked her head to the side. “You hear that?” She closed her eyes.
“Reese!” Parillo was shaking her. His voice sounded as though it was not the first time he’d called her name.
Reese blinked several times. She was on her knees in the dark. “I’m OK, I’m OK.” She took a steadying breath. “What happened to the spotlights?”
“The…? What spotlights?” Parillo sounded worried.
Reese stood up and started to brush off her pants when she realized she was holding something in one of her hands. “The ones the techs setup for the crime scene,” she answered distractedly. She was looking at the thing in her hand. Her gloves were in the way. She used her teeth to pull off one of them and spoke around the glove finger between her teeth. “Did a fuse blow on the genny or something?”
“Slater…Reese, the spotlights are fifty yards up the hill. You walked into the woods and wouldn’t answer me. I can’t tell if you’re still that drunk or—”
“Wallet,” Reese interrupted. “It’s one of theirs.”
“How do you—? What the hell are you doing?” he demanded as she placed her fingers on the surface of the wallet. “You’re touching evidence with your bare hands! What is wrong with you? How did you know it was here?” He grabbed Reese roughly by her shoulders. “Theresa! What the hell!”
“Miguel Oscario. He knew the other boys. One of them, anyway. He lured Gabrielle here as part of a gang initiation. He agreed because he thought she was cheating on him. She wasn’t, though. The things that killed him and the other boys weren’t human. Or natural.”
Reese finally looked at Parillo. His eyes showed white all around the edges, and his mouth gaped. Reese knew something strange had just happened, but she could quite put her finger on it. “I’m... ‘Scuse me.” She shook off Parillo’s hands, handed him the wallet, turned away, and threw up. The Fates lent her no dignity, as she planted both knees into her own vomit as she passed out.