Phoenix in July. People called it Mother Nature’s rendition of hell on earth.
They were wrong. Hell existed on the other side of the world, in a much more treacherous desert. If it let you go, you ran, long and hard and as fast as you could.
You couldn’t hide, but you could try. I’d been running for six long months, jumping from one remote place to another, chasing wildlife with a camera for a paycheck. A safer endeavor than chasing two footed monsters.
Unfortunately, there was one thing I couldn’t outrun, family. Or the closest thing to it in my case, Kelsey. Sister by circumstances, not blood, and the only human on this planet I’d come back to civilization for, she should’ve been on her own plane with a group of fellow lawyers for some boring-ass conference. Her words, not mine. Instead, she’d managed to get a message to me, even out into the wilds of America’s last frontier. Someone had been asking questions about me, and watching her.
Which meant one disturbing message and eight hours later, I found myself crammed into the sardine can doubling as a plane. As it rolled to a stop on the tarmac, I moved into the narrow aisle, squishing between a young mother holding a squirming toddler, and a heavy set, cranky businessman as we jockeyed for a place. Juggling my camera bag while I dug out my cell phone didn’t endear me to my fellow passengers either. Since our flight out of Fairbanks, Alaska had been delayed, everyone wanted off, right now. People were pulling out bags and resetting their various electronic devices. Muted conversations swelled around me while the toddler took advantage of his mother’s inattention to flash me a gap-tooth grin. I wiggled my fingers at him. The grin widened, at least until his mom distracted him with a stuffed toy.
Thumbing my phone’s screen, I discovered seven missed calls and two voicemails. Nerves tightened.
Numbers scrolled across my incoming call list. The first one held a 619 area code. Coronado, California. It repeated twice. My stomach lurched and old anger snarled. I scrolled past it like all the others I’d received in the last few months, and then found the one I needed. It was listed four times.
Damn it! My stomach roiled.
I hit the icon to retrieve my voicemails, then tucked the phone between my shoulder and ear. It made pulling my battered backpack from the overhead compartment tricky. Finally getting it free, I settled it on my free shoulder, only then able to reclaim my phone.
The awkward juggle allowed me to ignore the strange visual dance of adverted glances from my fellow passengers. Of course the burn scars curling under my jaw and dripping like delicate lace down my neck before disappearing under my T-shirt were hard to miss. Hell, even I wasn’t used to them yet.
“Cyn? You need to call me as soon as you land.” Frantic and breathless, I almost didn’t recognize Kelsey’s voice. My fingers tightened on my phone. “Look, there’s been a change of plans. I’m heading north to hole up and wait for you.” Her harsh breathing was audible even with the rumblings of the departing passengers as we shuffled to the exit. “Whoever’s been watching me, I think they got in my condo. You know that itch you talk about? Yeah, well it’s graduated to hives.” Her voice became muffled, and then cleared, “...not comfortable sharing over the phone, so just hurry the hell up and get here, okay?”
The next message came from the 619 area code so I didn’t bother listening. I hit speed dial, praying Kelsey would pick up. Her phone rang and went to voicemail. “Kels, it’s me. I’m on my way. Call me back.” I checked to see when she’d called. Forty-five minutes ago.
Stuck in the exit shuffle, I hit the oven between the airplane and the actual airport masquerading as the jet way at a stuttering run. Once there was room, I began dodging the zombie-like crowd of departing passengers, ignoring the muttered complaints trailing in my wake. Like I gave a shit right now. Kelsey was an up-and-coming corporate lawyer in a Phoenix law firm and the last damn person to panic. Until being taken in by the Ardens as teenagers, we had both navigated the wonderfully warped world of foster care with guts and bravado. The underlying fear in her message scared the bejesus out of me.
My bags thumped against my shoulders and hips as my booted feet pounded down the seemingly never-ending airport corridors. Exiting through the automated doors, the sucking wall of a hundred-plus degrees of Phoenix summer put a hitch in my step. I hopped on the shuttle for long-term parking. As it made its way to where I had left my Jeep two and a half weeks ago, I tried Kelsey’s number again. No answer. Next call went to my cabin up north. The stupid machine picked up. “Kels? Are you there?” I waited, trying not to pant like a racehorse. Nothing. Sickening dread tightened my stomach muscles and I tried her condo in Tempe. Nothing.
The shuttle lurched to a stop at the curb in a cloud of exhaust. I ran, weaving my way through the blistering metal of parked cars under the relentless afternoon sun, my T-shirt sticking to my back like a leech. Finding my Jeep, I threw my backpack in the back and, with a little more care, set my padded camera bag on the passenger floorboard. Habit had me plugging in my phone before I settled behind the wheel. Not waiting for my poor air conditioner to beat back the searing heat, I started the engine, navigated out of the lot, and hit the freeway.
My fingers danced on the steering wheel with frenetic worry and my left leg bounced like a piston. My body got busy stressing out, while my mind remained startlingly clear. The dichotomy felt all too familiar. Lessons learned during my stint with the U.S. Marine’s Intelligence Unit stuck like glue. Shoving my emotions to the side, logic took center stage and survival became the name of the game.
Kelsey would be heading north, to Sedona, to the cabin we inherited from our foster parents. The one I called home when I was here. A little haven of security tucked away from the world. Listed under our foster mother’s maiden name and known only to us, it made a perfect hideout. A glance at the Jeep’s dash confirmed a full tank. If I followed the speed limit, I’d hit Sedona in little over two hours. A quick prayer to whatever deities were listening and I pressed my foot harder on the gas. Speed limits be damned.
By the time my exit appeared for Sedona, my raging emotions weren’t so easily shoved aside. Instead, the scenarios dancing in my mind, which were more in line with those slasher films Kelsey loved so much, had left my stomach a mess. Regardless of Sedona’s beauty, the towering, red rock cliff faces weren’t doing a damn thing for my photographer’s heart. My jaw ached and it’d be a miracle if I didn’t crack a tooth. With one main road in and out of town, traffic had slowed to a meandering crawl.
Impatience beat at me and fifteen of the longest damn minutes of my life passed before I turned onto the semi-paved road winding up Oak Creek Canyon. Taking it faster than normal, I bounced along the rough road, a cloud of dust following in my wake, marking each curving turn.
Clearing the last bend, my home came into view. Kelsey’s older model Lexus sat to the side of the cabin and the tight bands across my chest began to loosen in relief. The partially cleared front yard held scattered trees standing guard around the house. A couple of older Juniper trees surrounded by various desert shrubs and flowers stood imperiously between the raised wrap-around porch and the half- moon drive. The Jeep came to a skidding halt on the loose gravel.
Scrambling out, my weak leg threatened to fold under me, the stiff muscles reminding me that six months had not been long enough for my body to forget the damage dealt to it. My breath hissed out as I grabbed the metal doorframe for support only to have it burn my palm. I readjusted my hold and studied the house. My relief at seeing Kelsey’s car was short-lived. The afternoon shadows weren’t deep, but unless they were playing tricks on me, my front door stood ajar.
Spurred into action, I crossed the front yard, my limp disappearing as my muscles got with the program. The loud crunch of gravel under my boots made my approach the furthest thing from stealthy. Not that rolling in like a motorized stampede had been any better. Regardless of my rather obvious arrival, I could still be careful.
Even without much cover, I tried to angle to the side of the door, just in case. A quick look confirmed Kelsey’s car was empty. Tucking into the space between the front door and the carport, the rough walls of the house rasped against my back. This close, I couldn’t miss the long crack running along the doorframe, or the tread mark from a heavy-soled shoe decorating the paint just above the deadbolt.
Someone had kicked in my door.
Holding back the urge to barge in, I reminded myself there were times when out-waiting your enemy could prove more vital than any other action you could take. However, nightmare images of how much damage a human could do to another in a matter of minutes pushed my patience to a breaking point. Especially if that other person happened to be Kelsey. I couldn’t leave her unprotected. Sour dread coated the back of my tongue and my instincts jittered like jumping beans on crack.
The normal sounds of birds and insects were eerily silent. Light, heated breezes whispered through the trees. Something, a shadow or a movement of the curtains at the window, caught my attention and worry beat the hell out of caution. Channeling my adrenaline rush steadied my nerves and sharpened my surroundings with painful clarity.
Kelsey wasn’t alone.
One of the many desirable traits for owning property up in the canyon meant my nearest neighbor sat a half-mile out. Which translated into the isolation being a bit of a bitch. Not that I generally minded, but right now... Reaching in my pocket, I cursed silently. My phone was sitting in my Jeep. Not that there was much of a signal out here, but calling the authorities as possible backup had been worth a try. Now what?
Taking a quick inventory, I refused to listen to my muttering voice of reason. I pulled out my keys, careful to keep them from jingling, and wove them between my clenched fingers, creating a primitive set of brass knuckles. It wasn’t much, but at five foot five and just under a hundred thirty pounds, even a little bit of damage could give me a needed edge.
I strained my ears, hoping to hear something, anything.
Using my empty hand, I pushed the door. It swung open on silent hinges, disgorging a draft of cool air. When no one rushed out, my breath escaped in a little puff of air. Poised at the side of the door, the disquieting sense of foreboding ran under my skin, raising the fine hairs on my arms. It took a moment for the shadows in the dim interior to resolve into recognizable objects. An old-fashion coat rack, decorated with a couple of flannel jackets, reached from the glass block corner. The wooden bench with cubbies for shoes squatted against the hall wall where one of Kelsey’s abstract paintings hung.
Nothing disturbed the murky shadows. No rasping sounds of heavy breathing. No discernible chaos other than the splinters from the door littering the entryway.
I stepped gingerly over the threshold, every sense on alert. Keeping my attention on the hallway, I pushed the door partially shut behind me. I didn’t want to leave it wide open, but couldn’t risk the noise of closing it completely.
Spotting the oak walking stick tucked in the corner, excitement sparked and I grabbed it. My nerves steadied as the smooth wood warmed against my palm, giving me a second weapon.
An eerie silence lay over the house like a lurking predator and choked off my urge to call out. Facing the hall, my choices were to go left to the back bedrooms, or right to the open living room and kitchen. Either way, my back would be exposed.
Taking the right, I could clear two rooms in one shot. With my spine to the wall, I stopped at the arch into the living room, and snuck a quick glance around the corner. Nothing but familiar furniture in the living room and an empty kitchen. Spotting Kelsey’s sunglasses and keys by the blinking answering machine on the counter reinforced my unease. With her keys and car here, where the hell was she?
Trying not to panic, I turned and cautiously rushed toward the bedrooms on the other side of the hall. The two bedrooms were split by a bathroom. I cleared the one serving as my office first, and then closed the door behind me. Creeping past the bathroom, the partially open door to my bedroom beckoned. Nerves and dread tangled together, squeezing my lungs tight and causing a fine tremor in the hand holding the makeshift brass knuckles. The sense of something very wrong paralyzed me. Just because I couldn’t see it yet, didn’t make the threat any less true.
The AC kicked on and the overly loud snick of the front door being pushed closed had an undignified eep escaping as I swiveled around toward the noise. My pulse spiked hard, leaving me lightheaded. Leaning against the wall, my grip loosened on the metal biting into my palm. A variety of horrific images of what could lurk in my room began to play through my mind. My hand shook. I used the back of my fist to wipe away the cold sweat on my forehead. I needed to get a grip. My imagination quickly sank into dark areas better left alone.
Taking a deep breath, I stiffened my spine and forced my feet to move.
With a soft push, my door swung open. The blinds were half open and the afternoon sunlight spilled across an open suitcase sitting on my king bed. A discarded shirt lay half hung on a hanger and Kelsey’s hobo bag peeked out from under it. In the dresser, a drawer listed open. I stepped into the room. “Kels?” I kept my voice low and quiet, as if it would really bring Kelsey out from under the bed or out of the closet. The room stayed empty.
The uneasy feeling continued to play havoc with my nerves. A growing helpless frustration graduated it to a simmering anger. What in the hell was going on? Where was she? Maybe her stalker had grabbed her? Or had she run out in to the woods like the too-stupid-to-live women in the cheesy horror flicks she loved so much?
That last thought had me shaking my head. Kelsey wouldn’t run, she’d stand and fight. An unfortunate trait we both shared according to our adoptive parents. I needed more information.
I stuffed my keys into my pocket, but kept my walking stick close. It made a great security blanket. I may have been the only person in the house, but still I went back and did a more thorough search.
Clearing the house once more, I stood in the living room. Worry had cracked my interior barriers and fear slithered through. There were no glaring clues for me to follow. Kelsey was just gone. If her cell hadn’t been on the kitchen counter, I would’ve had her carrier trace her GPS. For the first time, the concept of tagging people with GPS chips started to make sense.
For a brief moment I considered calling on old acquaintances in shadowy places for a few favors. I nixed that idea. Too many questions to answer if I popped back up on the radar. I wasn’t that desperate. Yet.
Which left me with what?
I tapped the end of my staff against the floor. Looking around, a nebulous plan began to spin in my head. There was something I could use, no matter how much I didn’t relish the idea. Since no other options were stepping forward, the question of whether or not it would be enough remained beside the point.
Tightening my damp grip on my staff, I headed back toward my room. My stomach lurched and cotton filled my mouth with each step, but this would be my best chance to find her. Propping the staff just outside the door, I crossed to my bed and perched on the end next to her stuff. My fingers stroked over her shirt. Knowing what needed to be done and doing it were two very different things.
It had been months since the last time I tried this. My fingers curled, crushing the soft material. The light scent Kelsey wore drifted to me. Even that small comfort couldn’t counter the sickening apprehension swirling in my stomach as my body rebelled at what I was preparing to do. Balling up the material, I held it chest high, needing something she’d touched to help focus.
My nerves tightened to painful points. A mental voice piped up, questioning the sanity of going through with this when it could end up a pointless endeavor.
I told it to shut the hell up, I wasn’t abandoning Kelsey. It would work, it always did.
And if it went wrong? That stupid voice pushed. What then?
My lips pulled into a grimace. I’d handle it, dammit. I’d handle it just fine so long as it helped me find Kelsey.
Blowing out a breath, I dropped my cloth-covered hands to rest on my thighs and closed my eyes. My chest expanded as I dragged in a deep breath, held it, and then let it go. Kelsey’s scent colored my thoughts. My mind raced. Maintaining the pattern of breath, I forced everything but an awareness of Kelsey out of my head. Slow in. Hold. Push out. Slow in. Hold. Push out.
The sudden blanket of silence as the AC hit its prearranged goal and clicked off, snapped my spine straight and interrupted my breathing. My eyes flashed open and I had to calm my spiking pulse before starting over.
Pushing away the creepy silence curling around me took longer than anticipated. Eventually my thoughts slowed. The mental path leading to the secret spot in my mind took awhile to find. Not unexpected considering the lack of use and a whole shitload of denial piled on top of it. Once uncovered, I followed it down past memories, both good and bad, until I reached the end. On the never- ending horizon of my mind, a towering wall loomed. For a moment I stood and stared. Buried behind the formidable barrier of my subconscious pulsed a strange energy, the one thing in this world guaranteed to turn me into a blathering idiot.
Bracing myself, I began to tear the wall down. One by one, I demolished the blocks and the entire subconscious structure shuddered and collapsed.
I opened my eyes, careful to keep my focus on my lap and my sense of Kelsey foremost in my mind. Bracing myself, I looked up and flinched.
Yep, definitely missed a few things.
The past played out like a crazy barrage of scattered, silent-film images, layered in moments of time. The confusing whirlwind left gouges in my heart. This house held so many memories of those I loved and each one played in front of me in snatches of stolen time, one memory on top of another, creating a visual pandemonium. Some images were faint, while others pushed forward only to be pulled back, but each one was fragmented. The barrage could drive me insane. Almost had at one point.
Gritting my teeth, I struggled to find my mental footing. My skills were rusty, but like riding a bike, I found my balance and managed to zero in on what I needed.
A pale and worried Kelsey strode through my bedroom door. Her image wavered, threatening to fade away. I narrowed my attention, determined not to lose her. The visuals steadied, firmed. Her white-blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail at the base of her neck, her jaw clenched as she dropped her hobo purse onto the bed, and then pulled up her suitcase.
Considering how clear the images were, her emotions had to be off the charts. The strange ability living within me tended to be a complete mystery, but generally when I played Peeping Tom with the past, it was choppy and hazy. Painful experience taught me the more emotionally connected I was to a person or event, the clearer the picture.
I watched Kelsey unpack. Then the image began to fade as an older one tried to take the floor. My fingers tightened on the shirt in my lap as I struggled to bring Kelsey’s image back. It took a few nerve stretching moments, but she reappeared. This time she was getting ready to hang up her shirt when her head came up like a hound on point and turned to the door.
Old frustrations and resentments tried to tumble forth, but I shoved them back. Wasting effort on wishing for a reliable soundtrack to the images in front of me would get me nowhere. It was hard enough to keep my attention centered on the right memory. Most times I was lucky to get a comprehensive scene. I couldn’t remember a time where I’d been able to hear anything, instead I seem to be eternally relegated to a watcher position. The old axiom of ‘you can’t change the past’ had been hammered home early on.
As my concentration wavered, so did the image in front of me, breaking up like clouds after a storm. Mental focus honed over the years and pounded into me by the U.S. Marines snapped into place and once more, Kelsey reappeared. This time she pulled something out of her bag. Twisting slightly to stay with the scene, I couldn’t stop my muttered, “What the hell, Kels?”
Her hand reappeared, wrapped around a nine mil Sig Sauer P226. A gun which should be tucked inside the gun safe at her condo. In Tempe.
Kelsey hated guns, but loved me, hence her agreement to keep a small gun safe at her condo for my occasional visits. Guns were my versions of Teddy Bears. I didn’t like being with out one, so Kelsey had eventually given in and let me keep them at her place when I left town. The marines had uncovered a natural shooting skill, one I kept up even after my discharge. I’d taught Kelsey a few basics. The lessons had obviously stuck, because she kept the barrel aimed at the floor, her finger to the side of the trigger, not on it. She crept toward the bedroom door, the gun steady in her two-handed grip.
Fully caught in the past, I rose from the bed to follow the image of the gun- toting Kelsey through the bedroom door. Her image disappeared into a swirl of disjointed memories. Desperate to recapture the scene, I stumbled down the hall. Based on Kelsey’s actions, someone was about to make an appearance. My pulse sped up in anticipation.
Near the front entryway, I hit pay dirt. She had her back to the wall, the gun extended in front of her as she sidled closer to the door. Her eyes widened and her grip loosened as fear raced across her face. Her inattention lasted maybe one or two seconds, but that’s all it took for her to lose any advantage. Considering the sharpness of this image, her fear had been bone deep.
I had to get beyond the front door. Too many emotions happened when people came and went. Sure enough, the ever-changing impressions swirled around me and Kelsey’s image disappeared. Struggling to find her, I worked my way through the front hall until something caught my attention near the living room. A flash of pale hair behind something big.
Kelsey faced off against a looming figure. I drew closer. Male, judging by the size. I catalogued the jeans, drab T-shirt, and heavy-soled boots for later reference even as I worked my way around. Looking for a face, I frowned in confusion. Like a channel just off center, his head and shoulders were a disturbing blur of static. That was new. The unusual phenomena created a lingering menace.
Maybe Kelsey’s fear was doing this? Then it no longer mattered because he moved his hands in a familiar, lightening-quick disarm move. The gun was now pointed at Kelsey. My heart stopped. The scene wavered as my emotions spiked, fracturing my concentration. I fought for calm, scared to lose what little hold I had. Everything steadied. I sucked in a breath of relief, but it was too soon.
Kelsey’s emotions crested like a deadly undercurrent. Frantic, I struggled to gather as much information as I could before it dragged me under. When her shock morphed to anger, it added a desperate edge to her movements. Her self-defense skills were rusty, but she kept him off balance. A quick strike knocked the gun out of his hand and out of the scene. His efficient counterattack revealed he was playing with her.
Judging by her rapidly encroaching panic, she knew it too. She began to back away, her lips moving, her fear evident in the white lines around her mouth and her fists clenched at her sides. The sidelong glances for escape the only indicator of her underlying fear. Even knowing I could change nothing, instinct had me stepping closer and reaching out to drag her to safety. My hand closed on empty air. She disappeared.
Frustration boiled and I spun around, frantic to find her again. Wisps of other memories circled closer, but I shoved through them. Rubbing at the dull ache in my temples, the soft brush of forgotten cloth reminded me I still held her shirt. Bunching it up, I pressed it to my face and dragged her scent into my lungs. Her familiar fragrance wrapped around me, cutting me off from my rising frustration and allowing me to reclaim my focus.
Taking a bracing breath, I dropped my hands and looked around. It took precious time to work through the layers of memories, but I found Kelsey on the floor, her attacker’s hand wrapped around her throat. Her fingers scrabbled at his tanned wrist, leaving bloody gouges behind. Along one side of her face a bright red, hand-shaped mark indicated she’d been hit once.
My anger joined her panic, increasing the emotional draw exponentially. It seeped through my mental barriers and sucked me deeper, to a level I rarely experienced. One where the lines blurred between me and the past.
Rough hands were tightening around my throat, choking off my air, and my hands flew up to claw at the phantom grip. Terror soared, buoying me above Kelsey’s emotional waves. The pressure on my throat disappeared. I sucked in air and instinctively lunged for the guy still holding Kelsey to the floor. The sharp pain of my shin meeting the edge of an end table not only shattered the scene, bringing me back to the present, but served as a reminder I couldn’t change a damn thing. All I could do was helplessly watch the echoes.
Swearing on a harsh sob, I limped around the damn table trying to recapture the past. I’d made it to the counter separating the kitchen and dining room when Kelsey reappeared.
Her attacker had her against his chest, his arm locked against her throat. Bright blood trickled from the side of her mouth. Her lips were swollen. She continued to struggle. He leaned down and said something I couldn’t hear. Her movements stilled, her face whitened and pure terror turned her eyes a deep blue.
Those terrified eyes locked on to mine and I staggered as I heard Kelsey’s voice whisper through my mind. “Run, Cyn!” Then they disappeared.