I kind of love this chapter more than most even though I did decide not to use the word “gloaming”…but don’t tell any of my other chapters; I don’t want to upset them.
The thing is, I’m introducing a very bad guy here. I really wanted this to be disturbing.
On the bright side, one of the few rewrite requests I got from an editor at Baen, back when I thought they might publish this book, was to tone it down a bit. And some of my friends, who know me from non-writing activities, have seemed…put off? Which I view as a form of applause.
Unfortunately I haven’t yet received any coldly angry 1-star reviews for the book as a result of either the chapter or the subplot it introduces. Which means I probably need to try harder next time.
Though it’s still possible that at least a few readers become ex-readers when they encounter it. I hope so, anyway. Not that I want readers to go away, but–hey, I still think I did a pretty good job with the thing, and if so it ought to offend somebody. Don’t you think? If it’s just sort of there and nobody cares what happens next…well. Not good for me, is it?
Maybe you’ll just have to judge for yourself. On, once again, with the show!
(One Day Earlier—Hunter)
The hunter found her on Saturday night, at the downtown Whataburger between Water Street and North Shoreline Boulevard.
He’d always wanted to hunt there, but busy streets and bright lights in the parking lot had made it impractical. Tonight, though, he noticed all but one of the lights were out—and road construction had shut down traffic on Water Street. He pulled in to see what would be offered to him.
Corpus Christi, Texas was the home of Whataburger, and the downtown restaurant was huge. Two stories, a deck, kids going everywhere. It felt wrong to him, letting kids run wild like that. But maybe their parents were blind to the nature of the world, or their families’ rightful place in it.
When he saw her he already knew it would go perfectly. Past sunset, the sky going blue-black, the city lights brightening, the dead-fish ocean smell blowing in from the Bay…dwindling twilight was his domain. He glanced slyly at the well-lit building across Water Street from the restaurant, almost wishing someone would come out and try to stop him. But that was mere fantasy. Between the darkness and the construction signs, he wouldn’t even be seen.
She looked to be about ten years old, with long blonde hair and an energetic stomping sort of walk. Blue and white dress, white stockings, dark blue shoes. Or so he guessed. He couldn’t actually see her shoes from the parking lot. But he was sure they would be right. She was that kind of person.
Her parents looked like tourists, if they were her parents. She didn’t seem to fit them, somehow. Her father sported a mostly-red Hawaiian shirt with olive-green nylon shorts, possibly a swimsuit, definitely due for a wash. Her mother wore old jeans and a faded orange T-shirt. But the girl appeared ready for church on Sunday. She was sharper, more in focus, a higher order of being. Did they know she didn’t really belong to them?
He was sitting in his van wondering how he would get to her when she solved the problem for him. He watched her argue with a younger boy (her brother?) and stomp back to her parents with an air of setting things right. He lost sight of her for a few moments, and was thinking about going inside—though he knew better and would never have actually done it—when he felt an almost electric tingle at the base of his spine and realized she was outside the restaurant, with a set of keys in her hand, heading toward his corner of the parking lot. He supposed he wasn’t surprised.
As she passed, he got out of the van. He left the engine running and followed her back toward Water Street. She stomped along, intent on her mission.
“Susie?” he called. She reminded him of a girl he’d known when he was about her age. What was her name? Albright, that was it. What the hell. “Susie Albright?”
She stumbled, but kept going without looking back.
Time to invoke authority. “Come on Suze, I have something for your mom,” he called. “Hold up a sec!”
She turned around. “I’m not Susie,” she said. “I think you’ve got the wrong person.” She hesitated, then shrugged. “My name’s Katie.”
That’s it, he told her directly, without speaking. He was sure she could hear him. Stay put, now. Keep talking. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. Susie’s my horse, you see, and she’s always wandering off in parking lots. I think maybe she wants to be a car.”
The girl looked amused. Or maybe a little irritated. Maybe both. “I’m supposed to look like a horse? Nice story, I guess. What do you want?”
Could she be older than she first appeared? It didn’t matter; he was almost there. “Actually Susie’s my niece, and she looks a lot like you. I have something I was going to give her mom, and I thought you were her.” He shrugged. “Maybe I’ll give it to you anyway. Do you like chocolate?”
“Um . . .” She glanced toward the Whataburger behind him and took a half-step away. “I’m not supposed to take stuff from strangers.”
Of course she wasn’t. And yes, she was too old for candy to work. But she was beautiful. Dark blue eyes, the color of the sea. Perfect. She belonged in the deeper waters, away from sandbars and shallow folk. In his world, dark and quiet and still.
“Well, okay, I can find a different horse then.” Oh, she would be so good.
She rolled her eyes. “Enough with the horse thing, okay? It was funny the first time, but not anymore.” She turned and walked away.
“Horses don’t eat chocolate anyway,” he said, following her. “So I guess it’s for me.”
A car pulled into the lot behind him and he froze. He cocked his head, listening, but it went past him and parked on the far side of the lot, under the single working light. It disturbed a group of seagulls, which squawked and flew into the air.
He smiled at the driver when she got out, though he didn’t think she could really see him. He was just a shape in the dark. Most likely she wouldn’t have looked directly at him anyway. She’d probably heard that eye contact was dangerous—they taught that sort of thing in self-defense classes. And of course she’d parked under the light. Good for her. Safety was important.
He turned back to the girl. She’d picked up speed, circling around to the right. She didn’t know where her car was. “Hey, what if you took the chocolate inside and asked your mom if it was okay?” He angled to cut her off. It was almost time. She stopped between two SUV’s and peered back at him. About to bolt, maybe.
He glanced around. No witnesses except for the lady who’d parked under the light, and she was almost inside. He reached out with a foil-wrapped package.
Seagulls screeched and flew nearer to investigate. No, birdies, none for you. Impatience filled him with the power he needed. Come on, you little bitch. Just a couple of feet closer.
She looked past him, toward her parents. “I can’t. I have to go.” She turned away, hesitated for a moment, then headed farther from the restaurant.
Okay. That hesitation was a sign. She clearly wanted him to take her.
He stood between her and her parents. The potential witness had gone inside, and there was nobody else around. But that could change at any moment. Time. Go for it.
He ran after her.
His feet scraped on the sandy asphalt and she glanced back over her shoulder. She spun and threw the keys at his face, looking more angry than frightened. When he reached up to block them, she took off at an angle toward the light and the restaurant beyond, dodging between cars so he couldn’t cut her off.
He laughed as he ran. He’d known she was special. But she was just a kid, and gawky, and he would catch her.
She tripped as she jumped over a curb. He dove onto her sprawling body, pinning her down, and covered her mouth with his left hand. He’d scraped it as he landed, and her eyes widened with the taste of his blood.
But she was still a fighter. Even as he brought a rag out of his pocket with his other hand, she bit him, hard. More blood flowed into her mouth. He panted with laughter, excited by the game. He knew she wanted to be with him, or would want it later, when she understood. The same thing, really.
She struggled briefly, but passed out soon after he covered her mouth and nose with the sweet-smelling cloth. She was perfect, he knew. Perfect. She’d never shown any fear at all. He picked her up, filled with compassionate joy by her potential, and carried her back to his van.
As the van moved slowly out of the parking lot, a seagull swooped down to grab the foil-wrapped chocolate he’d dropped on the asphalt. Another flew to contest it. More gulls appeared, summoned by the noise and activity…or, he supposed, just possibly they were created by it. He wasn’t going to rule it out. The night was magical, and so was he, and so was his prize.
Taking her, having her, wasn’t really the point this time. It was part of a larger plan. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t play with her. He shivered all over, rubbing his arms gently, then put both hands on the wheel as he turned toward the Crosstown Expressway.
In the parking lot across Water Street from Corpus Christi Police Headquarters, the only sounds were the ticking of a cooling engine, tucked away safely under a light, and the discordant screaming of gulls.
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