Abby Baker crouched in her hiding place between two parked cars and cursed the day she was born.
Well, okay, she didn’t curse the day she was born. She didn’t curse at all. Good Catholic girls like her didn’t do things like that. Not even when their current situations practically begged for a nice, juicy expletive.
Considering that her main preoccupation of the moment had to do with staying alive and uninjured, getting upset with her own nativity wouldn’t have made a lot of sense. Instead, she chewed on the remains of her right thumbnail and tried to decide who needed a good divine intervention more just now, her or Terry.
To be honest, if Abby had been ready to take up cursing, it would make more sense for her to curse the day Terry Freeman had been born, since he was the one who’d gotten her into this mess. Or to curse the day she’d been stupid enough to agree to accompany him into the middle of a riot.
A swell in the volume of the chaos surrounding her had her peering out from behind a dented fender and into a normally quiet street in the Garment District. The glow of a burning vacant building made it no struggle to see what was going on, but Abby wasn’t certain she could count that as a good thing. The fire department said they had the blaze contained, so it wasn’t in danger of spreading, but that was about the only danger that had been contained in a five-block radius.
Angry figures with angry voices filled the streets from about two blocks behind Abby to the small neighborhood square two blocks ahead. They were protesting the same thing people had been protesting all over the country for the last six weeks: the unbelievable, surreal, and highly disturbing knowledge that the things that go bump in the night were also going bump in the day. Quite possibly in the apartment next door.
It was too freaky to be real, except for the fact that it was, and the entire world had seen the video footage to prove it. Less than two months ago, an international press conference carried live on all the major American networks, CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Television Borneo, for all Abby knew, had revealed that vampires, witches, faeries, werewolves, werecats, werebears, and were-everythings didn’t just exist, they voted. And on top of that, they had been secretly negotiating for the past two years to secure their civil rights with the human governments of the world.
It had been the real-life equivalent of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, and nothing on earth had been the same since. In fact, after all of this, news of an alien invasion would likely make the average New Yorker yawn and roll his eyes.
Maybe her mother hadn’t been exaggerating when she called her daughter’s defection from their small town upstate to the big, bad city “Abby’s descent into the fiery pit.” Even if it had been meant as a joke.
At the moment, it hit uncomfortably close to home.
Right now, the neighborhood around her did look a bit like some distorted version of hell. Or at least of a war zone. Abby wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to see a tank rolling down 7th Avenue tonight. In fact, she might even have welcomed it. Soldiers were supposed to help the civilian victims in armed conflicts, weren’t they?
The average protester on the streets around her may have started out armed with nothing more dangerous than poster board and a loud mouth—which was more than dangerous enough, thanks—but as night had descended on the city, tempers had shortened and Abby thought she spied more than one makeshift weapon in the crowd. The whole situation had degenerated into a seething mass of blunt-force trauma just waiting to happen.
Abby’s free hand rose to finger the small gold and garnet cross she wore around her neck, and she wondered for the millionth time in the last ten minutes how on earth she’d gotten herself into this situation.
C’mon, Abby. This is my big break; I can feel it. You gotta help me.
Terry’s wheedling voice echoed in her head and answered her unvoiced question.
Terry Wayne Freeman had been the instrument of her downfall, not because he was a tool of Satan, precisely; Terry was just really good at wheedling. The youngest of five kids growing up in Harlem with parents who worked around the clock to support them, he had developed a formidable charm against which even the strongest soul became powerless. He’d even put himself through his last two years of journalism classes at CUNY by running a three-card monte stand near Times Square.
Abby liked to delude herself that it wasn’t the wheedling that got her, though; it was the begging.
Abby, please. Gus says I can take the old backup van and equipment if I can find someone to help me operate it. It’s all like ten years out-of-date, but what the hell. Once he sees the tapes, it’s not gonna matter. This is my chance. I’m sure of it.
His big brown eyes had pleaded with her, and he’d squeezed her hand like she was the source of all salvation. Sheesh, did she have “sucker” tattooed on her forehead, or what?
Please, Ab. You gotta help me. I’ll owe you so big, I’ll be doing you favors on the other side of the pearly gates. I swear it. If you’ll just please, please, please help me out here.
She was supposed to say no to that?
“Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
Was this really the right moment for a recitation of her grandmother’s favorite passage from Corinthians? The “charity” Abby had felt toward a twenty-year-old kid with a Cronkite complex had landed her so close to those pearly gates he’d mentioned, she figured she could have given Saint Peter some fashion tips.
She must have been high on fumes from her correction fluid when she’d agreed to help Terry out. For pity’s sake, she was a junior researcher. A glorified gofer! She had no business being in the same room as a TV camera, let alone pretending to operate one. She must have lost her mind.
Abby Baker had always been the boring one, the girl voted Most Likely to Be Forgotten. The kind who gave the old-fashioned term “wallflower” a new lease on life. It wasn’t that people disliked her; they just tended to . . . overlook her. Part of that had been due to the painful shyness she’d carried with her all through her school days, but part of it was just because she was infinitely overlookable. She had plain features, plain brown hair, and a plain, if slightly well-padded, body. The only unusual thing about her was her mismatched eyes, one blue and one brown, and those tended to make people too uncomfortable for them to dig much past the rest of her plain brown wrapper.
Eventually, in college she’d learned to force herself past the shyness. She had friends, but they tended to be nearly as quiet as she was. None of them lived in the fast lane. Heck, she didn’t think any of them had even made it to the highway; they tended to stick to the pedestrian walkways.
So why in heaven’s name had her life chosen this moment to start getting interesting?
A tattoo of racing footsteps had Abby ducking back between the parked cars. She knew hiding wasn’t helping her out of the situation those correction fluid fumes had landed her in, but that didn’t mean she was ready to give up the strategy. Or to, you know, stop quaking in fear.
She watched as several sets of boots ran past and groaned when she saw the military fatigues tucked into the tops of them. Apparently, the mayor had made good on his threat to call out the National Guard if the protesters got out of hand again. She couldn’t fault the decision, only the timing of it. He should have gotten the situation in hand weeks ago, instead of letting it build to the flash point like this.
She added it to the list of the politician’s sins. Since the press had uncovered the fact that the mayor had known about the plan for a massive worldwide supernatural revelation at least a week before the general populace, the list had grown to epic proportions. Abby thought it might have been a good idea for him to have a plan in place from the beginning, just in case the public didn’t deal well with the news of the millennium.
That was just a theory, since she wasn’t actually a politician or anything, but she didn’t think it sounded unreasonable.
The only thing that sounded unreasonable to her at the moment was spending the rest of the night crouched in the gutter between a couple of old clunkers. Not only did she feel ridiculous, but her legs had begun to cramp up on her too. Terry was still nowhere to be seen, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t find a way back to the news van and into her apartment in the quiet of Greenwich Village on her own. She was a big girl, twenty-seven, smart, single, and perfectly able to take care of herself. She could even do it without indulging in a self-pity party.
Venturing another glance out into the street, Abby grimaced. The sight of the crowds of protesters and the sound of soldiers shouting as they tried to regain order failed to reassure her of her safety.
She looked around a nearly bald tire and scanned the rows of parked vehicles for her getaway car. The van she and Terry had driven here sat at the curb about half a block away, waiting for the perfect escape, taunting her with its nearness. Fifty feet away and it may as well have been fifty miles. At least three dozen very unhappy protesters, some of them brandishing their signposts like clubs, stood between her and it. Since she couldn’t get to the stupid thing, she felt rather inclined to resent its existence.
Somewhere in the neighborhood a wolf howled, and a moment later the sound of sirens added a distinctive wail to the established pandemonium.
Abby grimaced. Just the trifecta they needed to round out the evening: police, ambulances, and a werewolf.
Abby still couldn’t get used to thinking the w word like that, with no hesitation and no “and Lon Chaney Jr. as” thoughts anywhere in sight. But considering it had only been six weeks since the Unveiling announcement, as it was being called, she figured she could cut herself a little slack.
It wasn’t every day that the whole fabric of a girl’s reality shifted to admit the entire cast of the Sci-Fi Channel’s October lineup. Thank God. Everything still had a bit of a surreal quality to it, as if this were all some sort of dream of a collective consciousness and in a while everyone would wake up and forget about vampires until Hollywood released a new John Carpenter movie or Anne Rice published a new book.
It was only when things like a bit of cinder blew onto Abby’s skin and singed her that she admitted this whole thing wasn’t a dream and she could end up spending the night in a jail cell with the anti-Other protesters if she didn’t get her butt in gear and into that van in the next ninety seconds.
Muttering the Hail Mary under her breath, Abby yanked hard on the remains of her courage and duckwalked to the edge of her hiding place to survey the current situation.
The main body of the crowd was still in the square about a block and a half up, but since the protest had devolved into chaos a couple of hours ago, rioters had been moving closer and closer to her concealment. She could hear groups of them chanting slogans the KKK would have been ashamed of, which was precisely the thing the crowd needed to shift the mood from tense to ugly. She felt the shift as clearly as if someone had just flipped off a light switch and plunged the neighborhood into darkness.
Now might be the time to make a break for it.
“Hey, freak! Where do you think you’re going?”
The question, issued in a sneering shout, was definitely as unattractive as the new mood of the crowd, but what concerned Abby was that it sounded as if it had come from right next to her hidey-hole.
Mouthing another prayer and wishing she’d worn her rosary to work that morning, she braced the palms of her hands against the gritty pavement and peeked into the street.
She craned her head to the side until she could see the designer sneakers and baggy, beat-up blue jeans of the young man who had just spoken. Her gaze traveled up the jeans and over the muscular, tattooed arms that looked as if they’d been drawn on by a three-year-old with ADD and a morbid imagination. The hoodlum wore a basketball jersey at least three sizes too big, and if she hadn’t seen the patchy stubble covering his acne-marked face, she would have pegged him as too young to grow a beard. Revising her estimate of his chronological age upward and his emotional age downward, she pegged him as old enough to know better but clearly too stupid to care.
He had been leaning against the car to Abby’s left, but he and his two identically aggressive yet empty-headed companions pushed away from it. Like a wall of muscle and menace, they shifted their stances to loom over a slim teenager with wide brown eyes and two stubby little horns peeking out from among his mud-colored curls.
Abby’s stomach twisted in time with her conscience. The kid wasn’t human. You’d think an Other would know better than to go wandering through this neighborhood tonight. Just because Terry hadn’t gotten a chance to file a story about the demonstrations before he ran screaming into the night didn’t mean the news outlets wouldn’t have mentioned them. And that meant walking into the middle of one of those riots without even trying to blend in with the human crowd came close to suicidal—not to mention idiotic. What, the kid didn’t own a baseball cap?
“I-I’m sorry?” the Other stammered, looking confused.
“You should be.” Hoodlum number one’s friends snickered at his witticism and egged him on. “Little unnatural freak like you ought to apologize for breathing the same air as us humans.”
The three thugs took a menacing step forward, and Abby winced. The Other just stood there, wide-eyed and vulnerable, like a brain-damaged gazelle in a pack of hyenas. Why didn’t he run or turn into a werewildebeest or cast a spell or something? If he wasn’t going to be human, shouldn’t he at least know how to defend himself against them? Or against, you know, anything? It’s not like Abby would have taken a stroll through a gathering of werewolves without a silver bullet or two on hand.
“Yeah, you should apologize.” The ringleader bared his teeth and flexed his tattoos as he turned to sneer at his friends. “I think Goat Boy is starting to get the idea.”
The other two stooges began to sidle around the sides of the Other, penning him between them and the line of parked cars.
“I wonder what else we could teach him?” thug number two said.
“How ’bout a lesson?” thug number three growled, just before he took the first swing.
Stifling a surprisingly girlish squeak, Abby fumbled with her pockets, searching for her cell phone. She wasn’t quite sure what she was going to tell the emergency services operator—“Yes, I know the police are already on the scene, but could you just send them two blocks down, please? Tell them to look for a beige Dodge Dart and an orange Chevelle with an idiot on a cell phone hunkered down between them”?—but she couldn’t just sit there and watch three jerks kick the crap out of someone half their size.
The kid might not be human, but he was still a person, right? That’s what all the press conferences and news releases and public-service announcements the Others had been airing for the past few weeks had been saying anyway, and Abby liked to think she kept an open mind.
She patted herself down, searching from pocket to pocket, until her stomach took a sharp dive straight into her tennis shoes.
She’d left her cell phone in the van.
She remembered now. Terry had borrowed it to call the station and beg Gus one more time for a real cameraman, not that it had done him any good. Then, instead of handing it back to her, he’d set it down on the center console while he gave her a crash course in operating the clunky old video cam. She should have dropped the darned thing on his head and caught the first subway back to her apartment. As it was, she’d dropped it anyway when Terry had taken off, and she’d been too busy looking for a place to hide to worry what happened to it.
Torn between Good Samaritanism and self-preservation, Abby eyed the distance between her and the van, then looked back at the violence blocking her way, tempted to write this whole thing off as a clear example of the principle of every man for himself.
She’d almost done it, too, when she saw the third hoodlum land a punch to the Other’s kidney that had the kid staggering backward with a pained cry. That’s when her conscience kicked into overdrive and her common sense went on a three-week cruise to Bimini. Maybe her brother had been right when he told her she’d spent too many weekends in Sunday school. . . .
Her legs protested as she slowly rose from her concealing crouch into a slightly more upright crouch that she hoped would not gain her any unwanted attention. She had no plans to stick her face in the way of any of those flying fists, but if she could sneak past them, she could make a run for the van, call 911, and be back in her apartment without a pit stop in jail or the hospital.
Keeping her head down and her back against the Chevelle, Abby crossed her fingers and slowly, an inch at a time, began to ease past the commotion. She made it about three and a half feet before another wolf’s howl—this one sounding a lot closer than last time—sliced through the air and had all four brawlers turning toward the source of the sound.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the source was a couple dozen yards behind Abby.
She froze like a deer in headlights. She probably looked like one, too, halted in midstep with her eyes wide open and focused on the danger barreling toward her at top speed. While she watched, the hoodlums saw her, shouted something foul, and looked fully intent on making her rethink that trip to the emergency room.
They didn’t even manage a step forward. Something rumbled, deep and threatening, behind Abby, something that had the three hoodlums raising their gazes above her head and turning whiter than bedsheets.
The Other, though, never got past staring at Abby. His brown eyes locked with her mismatched ones and widened. She saw his lips move, but a third howl made it impossible to hear what he said. By the time the cry had faded, all she could hear was more of that low, menacing growl and the disgusting, if unoriginal, epithets spat out by the thugs.
“They’re freakin’ werewolves!” thug three screamed, his voice suddenly high-pitched and girlish.
“Dude, run!” yelled number one, leaving the last remaining attacker to half-throw, half-shove the Other in Abby’s direction before taking off like Satan and all the hounds of hell were following close behind.
Abby saw the whole thing happen, almost like a frame-by-frame analysis. She saw when the hoodlum grabbed the other by his shirt collar, half-lifted him off the ground, and started to pitch him toward her, but she couldn’t move fast enough. The startled Other went airborne and slammed into her, knocking her back to the pavement and driving the air out of her lungs. Just before her head bounced twice on the unforgiving asphalt, the Other caught her eyes again and—for some disturbing reason—smiled.
Great, Abby thought. I just risked my neck for a horny lunatic.
Copyright © 2007 by Christine Warren. All rights reserved.