CHAPTER 1 — FIVE DAYS EARLIER.
The bead of sweat finally reached my neck. I wiped it away. It was a typical July evening on the Texas Gulf Coast: hot enough to make you sweat, humid enough to keep the sweat sticking to your body like a second skin. It made people mean and unpredictable, like rabid dogs.
Or rabid wolves, which made me Little Red Riding Hood. Only instead of skipping through the woods with a picnic basket, I was pacing up and down a cracked sidewalk with a Sig Sauer nestled at the small of my back. I stopped next to a city bus stop bench and stretched. I got a whiff of my sweat, which still smelled better than this part of Mitchum Bay.
Back in the fifties, this area, unofficially named Riverside, had been filled with warehouses for the shipbuilding industry. It had boomed during World War II, had started dying in the sixties, had died for good in the eighties when Trinity Steel pulled out. Now the warehouses were filled with rats and junkies, the stores and houses that weren’t charred ruins were boarded up, and the only place doing any real business was the by-the-hour motel one street over, where we’d set up our little sting operation.
I was on the corner; if I turned my head to the right, I saw the battered blue Suburban that was my backup. Two Sawyer County deputies were inside it, soaking up the air conditioning and watching me. Once I had a casual encounter-seeking john on the line, I was to point him to the motel; the pointing was the signal that things were a go. The john would drive, I would walk, and once we were inside room number 5, the three deputies crammed into the little bathroom would burst out and an arrest would be made.
The quota tonight was five johns, at least. So far, we’d netted two. If I hadn’t spent the past couple of years being a fuck-up, always on the verge of getting suspended or fired, there was no way I would have volunteered to play prostitute. But I’d been clean (if not totally sober) for almost nine months, and I was working on the redemptive phase of my career, which apparently meant squeezing into cut-off blue jean shorts and a white tank top and sweating my ass off while cars cruised by and guys threw cat-calls at me.
I started walking again, away from the idling SUV. I was the only ho out, and maybe that was the problem. Usually, there was a selection. But the working girls had cleared out when we’d shown up.
A battered gray Oldsmobile blatted around the corner and passed me. The driver was skinny and rat-faced; he kept his head straight and didn’t attempt to scope me out, which told me he was going around the block to make another pass. He had an Oklahoma plate wired to the rear bumper.
He made a second pass. Then a third.
“Come on,” I muttered.
When he didn’t reappear, I figured he had scrammed. I went to the bench to get the bottle of water I’d stashed under it. I bent for it, then heard the familiar noise of the Olds’s rusted muffler. The fourth time was the charm, apparently. He’d switched direction though, and now he was parked across the street. I forced on a smile and waited for a dinged-up red Honda Civic to pass before crossing the street.
When the Olds’ door creaked open, I stopped in my tracks. I knew that right now, in the Suburban, the guys were crowded by the back doors. The doors were already cracked open; all they’d have to do was fling them open the rest of the way and pile out. It would take them twenty seconds to reach me.
“Hey,” the driver smiled as he got out. He closed the door and leaned against it. “Come on over. I don’t bite.” He chuckled.
I laughed too. I pressed my butt against his car’s dented fender; I was barely out of his reach, but I thought it was far enough.
“You been out here long?” He was soft-spoken, with a pockmarked face and old track marks on his veiny arms.
Meth user, I thought. “Just a couple hours,” I said, tugging at the low neck of my tank top and flapping it a bit. His skin, on closer inspection, didn’t have fresh sores, just the pitted scars that had come from obsessively picking at it. That, coupled with the lack of fresh needle marks and his overall demeanor, led me to believe he was a former addict. I was sure I was about to hear how Jesus saved his life and could save mine, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I wanted him to be a pervert so I could bust him and go home.
He rubbed his hands up and down his pants legs. His khakis and his blue T-shirt were both filthy, and I felt a glimmer of hope. I said, “Where in Oklahoma are you from?”
He sniffed, loud. Then he grimaced. “Fuck, you’re a cop.”
“Ha, no way—”
He wrapped his hand around my arm and pressed his nose against my ear before I had a chance to react. I’d never seen anyone move so fast. “You smell like a cop. So. You are a cop.” His breath was hot and smelled of cinnamon gum. His fingers squeezed painfully around my bicep.
I’m left-handed, and I’d screwed up by putting my dominant arm between us. Now he had it in a vice grip, and it felt like bones were about to break. I swung my right arm, feeling clumsy and weak and stupid, and managed to connect my bony knuckles with his left eye.
He cursed and shoved me. My feet tangled and I fell, taking the impact on my right hip and right elbow. I heard the pounding of sneakers—my backup—and looked up in time to see my attacker jump over the car’s roof and take off. One of the deputies ran after him.
I sat up. My hip hurt. My left arm throbbed. My right elbow was skinned and stinging. The other deputy, Brian Hudson, helped me to my feet. “Elizabeth, you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. That guy jumped over his car. Did you see that?”
But Brian was on the move, pounding the pavement after the other guys, leaving me to draw my Sig Sauer from its holster and give chase. The john had fled down a narrow alley between two warehouses. The one on my left housed oilfield equipment, according to the weatherbeaten sign bolted to its front; the one on my right, I had no clue. They were both brick, and dirty, with broken windows and graffiti.
The alley ended at a T intersection. Ahead was a stack of pallets; behind them, a chainlink fence topped with razor wire. The fence served as a boundary between the warehouses and the Lone Star Fire Hydrant Company.
I skidded to a stop and looked to my left, saw the deputies a good distance away, picking their way through busted pallets and rolls of chainlink fencing. They had seen a skinny white male running that way; when he saw them, he’d ducked inside the oilfield equipment building. He’d turn out to be a junkie looking for metal scraps to sell. Our skinny white male had turned to the right and had successfully hidden behind a discarded washing machine, until he decided to move and kicked a Coke can.
I heard the can clatter and I turned, saw him standing there maybe twenty yards away. “Hey!” I raised the gun. “Don’t move!”
He bolted to his left and disappeared inside the building. I cursed and whirled around, ready to yell to the guys that I had him. They were gone, inside the building on a wild goose chase, and I had a split-second decision to make: pursue or go get them. I didn’t have my phone on me, it was in Brian’s truck.
“Shit,” I muttered, and jogged after the driver anyway, a weird heavy feeling in my stomach. Maybe Brian had been too full of the thrill of the chase to notice, but the john had leaped over the car, no hands planted on the roof to help boost him up and over. He’d jumped from a standstill and cleared it, like someone out of a superhero movie, and maybe it was PCP and maybe it was Maybelline, but suddenly the little .380 pistol in my hands didn’t feel big enough.
I pressed against the building just an inch or so shy of the entrance. It was big enough to drive a truck through, and a quick glance inside reminded me what it had been: the Circus Circus Furniture Warehouse. Had the roll-up door been dropped down, there would have been a clown painted across it, juggling a couch and a recliner. They’d specialized in selling floor models and scratch-and-dents; before the fire hydrant company and their prison-style fence, Circus Circus had used the back of the lot to showcase their better-looking items, with some poor schmuck in a clown costume dancing around the sofas and boxsprings holding a sign proclaiming What a Jingle Jangle of a DEEEAL!
I looked inside one more time. Circus Circus had gone belly-up when I was a kid, and nothing had moved in to take its place. I could see some of the crap that had taken up residence over the years: beer bottles, bald tires, pieces of furniture that were either leftovers from Circus Circus or from people too cheap and lazy to take their shit to the dump.
I didn’t see him, but it was a large area to hide in, and dim, bordering on dark farther in. And I didn’t have a flashlight, of course.
I took a step inside, gun down by my side. “Hey,” I called out, figuring what the hell. “Come on out. You’re just making this worse.” A couple more steps inside, my sneakers gritting on the concrete floor, my lips still flapping: “Come out now, no more bullshit, and I’ll forget that you grabbed me and shoved me down.”
A second after I spoke, I heard growling on my left, behind a stack of three couches. My mouth went dry. My heart broke out into a sprint. A dog, that’s all it was, no big deal, a stray or some homeless dude’s pet, let me just back my ass out of here and hope that it hadn’t attacked that guy, because that sounded like a lawsuit.
I took a step back. There was a blur of movement on my left, and something crashed into me. I hit the ground hard, my right shoulder slamming against the concrete a second before my skull followed with a hollow bonk!
I blinked. My shoulder pulsed in time with my heartbeat, which seemed to be going a bit too fast. I rolled onto my back and blinked again. I was seeing double, but at least I was seeing. Not that I liked what I saw.
Something stood astride me on two doglike legs, arms dangling. Those arms ended in grotesquely long fingers and sharp talons. The talons looked skeletal. Its body was covered in short blond hair the same shade as the Oldsmobile driver’s. It moved its blocky head close to my face, and I smelled cinnamon gum. Its snout was short, nearly hairless, and, I saw a second later, home to a set of very sharp, very white, teeth.
The head—and those teeth—darted at my face. I blocked with my right arm, taking the bite on my forearm instead, screaming as bones crunched. It released my arm, and one of its creepy hands grabbed my injured arm and yanked it aside. Then I realized that I had somehow held onto the gun during my fall. This close, I shouldn’t miss. I couldn’t miss, because those jaws were parting again, and I didn’t have time to raise the gun much beyond bending my elbow and hoping it was aimed at the creature’s head.
Turned out, it was. The shot deafened me and drilled into the thing’s face, just below its right eye. Its green and entirely human-looking eye.
It staggered to my right, its leg catching me in the ribs. It lost its balance and tumbled to the floor. It groaned, got to all fours, and crawled away, deeper inside the warehouse. I cradled my injured arm to my chest and sat up, my ears ringing from the gunshot. I looked at my arm, expecting to see a ragged wound, skin hanging in flaps, maybe some exposed bone for good measure.
Instead, I saw smeared blood and intact skin. I realized then that it didn’t hurt. I flexed the fingers. Moved the arm away from my chest and rotated it. Touched it. It was fine. I was fine. Even my ears had stopped ringing. I was sweating buckets, but that was because it was damn hot in that warehouse, even this close to the entrance.
I got to my feet. I had lost sight of the creature, but I wanted to go after it, because it had appeared to be dying, and I wanted to see if it needed any help going to the light.
Then I heard my name—“Elizabeth!”—being very faintly shouted. The guys had heard the gun, of course. I hesitated only a moment before following where I thought the thing might have gone.