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On her last day on Earth, Nicole Hammond woke from her hung-over stupor to the sound of vague and distant voices, the reek of booze and blood, and the rough slap of someone’s hand against her cheek.
“Wake up, bitch.”
She rolled off the mattress onto the hard wooden floor, her cheek stinging as she tried to drag herself back to consciousness. She pried open her eyes, wincing as the early-morning sunlight blazing through the window burned into them.
It was Bungie.
She reversed her movement, rolling back toward the mattress and groping beneath her pillow for her knife.
Bungie was faster. “Uh-uh,” he said, snatching up the pillow and tossing it aside.
Nicole swore under her breath as her bleary eyes took in the empty spot where the pillow had been. Her knife was gone.
So was the tattered wallet where she’d stashed her share of last night’s take.
Damn, damn, damn.
“Where’s your knife?” Bungie demanded, taking a step toward her and planting one foot squarely in the middle of her mattress.
“I don’t know,” Nicole said, the words coming out slurred from a painfully dry mouth. She glanced over at the bedroom door, hoping Jasp might have heard the commotion. Surely Bungie wouldn’t want to take on Jasp in his own place.
“If you’re counting on Jasp, don’t,” Bungie said, a dark sort of smirk in his voice. “Last I saw he was still at the party. Looking for someone to take you off his hands.”
Nicole felt her heart sink. Jasp had the nicest place of anyone she knew, and she’d hoped she could sweet-talk him into letting her crash here at least another couple of weeks. But like everyone else before him, he’d apparently had enough of her sleeping off hangovers on his floor.
A second later, her heart leaped again as a horrible thought suddenly struck her. Had he given her to Bungie? Was that why the big ugly ape was here? To collect her and take her to his place?
God, no. Please, no.
“Get dressed,” Bungie went on, his dark smirk going just plain dark. “I need a doctor.”
Nicole blinked away more of the mental haze. She’d assumed the smell of blood had been coming from her, that she’d bitten her lip or maybe vomited before collapsing on her mattress last night.
But it wasn’t. It was coming from the bloody rag Bungie was holding pressed against his left side.
So Bungie had gotten into another fight. Big surprise. “What did you—?”
“Just get your damn clothes on,” he snarled.
“Yeah, keep your shirt on,” she muttered, getting unsteadily to her feet. She staggered a moment as her head suddenly went all dizzy, but the chair where she’d dropped her jeans and sweatshirt was right there beside her, and she was able to grab on to it before she fell over. The clothes reeked of booze and sweat, but she didn’t want to take the time to go hunting for something clean. Especially not if Bungie was going to bleed on her.
“Come on, come on.”
Nicole didn’t answer, concentrating instead on getting dressed. Her head was throbbing twice as hard as it had been when she first awoke, and she desperately wanted a drink. But Jasp wouldn’t appreciate it if she helped herself to his supply without asking first.
Luckily, she wouldn’t have to. Once she was dressed, she’d drive Bungie over to Packer to get fixed up, and Packer always had some booze lying around. She could easily talk him out of a drink or two for her headache while he sewed Bungie up.
As she pulled on her clothes, and as Bungie cursed under his breath behind her, she listened to the voices whispering through her pounding head.
They were louder than usual today.
In fact, she couldn’t remember them ever being as loud as they were right now. Certainly not since the first time she’d heard them, four years ago on the day after her fifteenth birthday. Trake had introduced her to whiskey at that party, and for a long time afterward she’d just assumed the voices were a normal part of a hangover, like the buzzing in her ears and the sweats and the dry mouth and the headache.
But over the years she’d slowly come to realize that the voices weren’t something that anyone else experienced. The voices were totally and uniquely her.
She’d been scared when she first figured that out. She’d heard about people with strange voices whispering at them, usually as part of a creepy story about a serial killer or someone who’d walked off a ten-story building.
Nicole’s voices never told her to do anything like that. They never told her to do anything. They never even called her by name, like they did in most of those stories. Usually she couldn’t even make out any words, like she was listening to a radio that was playing too softly.
Over time, she’d gotten more or less used to it. Even when the voices stopped being just a part of every hangover and started coming at odd times of the day or night it didn’t bother her too much.
Though she sometimes wondered if she was going insane when she woke up in the darkness and heard the whispers.
“What the hell is taking you so long?”
“Almost ready,” Nicole said, making a face into her sweatshirt as she pulled it over her head. This was not exactly the way she’d hoped to sleep this one off.
But she didn’t have much choice. Bungie was part of Trake’s group, and he was hurt, and if she didn’t help him, she could find herself out on the street with no one to take her in. It wasn’t like Trake couldn’t get someone else to play lookout and distraction for him—the Philadelphia streets were full of people who would jump at an easy job like that. “Let me get my boots,” she added, hurrying toward the window.
“You got shoes right there.”
“Those are wet,” Nicole said over her shoulder.
“You throw up on ’em?”
“I stepped in a puddle.”
“Oh, for…” His voice trailed off into a rumble of muttered curses.
She actually had stepped in a puddle, though not exactly a soaky one, if Bungie bothered to check to see if the shoes were wet. Not that she cared.
But her boots were near the window, and getting to the window got her to her window box.
And that was what she really cared about. She needed to see if, sometime during her weekend binge, her whiskey-soaked brain had remembered to water her flowers.
It had. Even just a glance showed her that the dirt was still moist, and the plants themselves seemed to be doing fine.
“I swear, if you’re mooning over those damn plants—”
“I’m getting my damn boots,” Nicole shot back, grabbing one and leaning against the wall for balance as she pulled it on.
She ran her eyes over her small collection of plants, then lowered her gaze to the window box itself. That small wooden box was the single constant in her life, the one thing that had been with her since she left her grandmother’s house four years ago. In that time some of the plants had died and been replaced, and some of the planter’s wood trim had chipped or broken off. But she didn’t care. She’d carried that box everywhere, and when Jasp threw her out she would make sure that her plants went with her.
She just hoped that whoever Jasp pawned her off on wouldn’t have a basement place like Packer’s. The flowers needed their sunlight.
“Ready,” she said, zipping up the last boot and turning back to face Bungie. “Do we need to score a car, or—?”
She broke off, feeling her eyes widen. In the short time it had taken her to dress, the rag Bungie was holding to his side had gone from merely red with blood to dripping with it.
This wasn’t his usual deep scratch. This was something a hell of a lot more serious.
“Already got a car,” he grated. He was still standing upright, but he was starting to sway a little. “Give me a hand, huh?”
Nicole moved to his uninjured side, steadying him and helping him across the room to the door. The stairs down to the street were the trickiest part, and there were a couple of times when she thought she was going to lose it and send both of them tumbling to the next landing. But with one arm around Bungie and the other hand on the rickety railing they finally made it.
Trake had better appreciate her going through all this. Bungie damn well better appreciate it, too. “Which one?” she asked, shivering as the cool early-morning air hit her sweaty skin.
“There,” Bungie said, pointing to a BMW crookedly parked beside a fire hydrant. “You drive.” He pressed a set of bloody keys into her hand.
“Where are we going?” she asked as she steered them toward the car.
“I already told you—the hospital,” he rumbled. “Put me in the backseat—this side, right here.”
Balancing Bungie on her arm and shoulder, she got the car unlocked and opened the back door. “Easy now—watch the ribs,” he warned. “Watch the ribs, damn it!”
A minute and some more cursing later, she had him settled. She closed the door, then hurried around the hood and got in behind the wheel. “VA hospital’s closest,” he told her between clenched teeth as she closed her door. “We’ll try there.”
“Do they take non-vets at the VA?” she asked, wincing as she touched wetness on the seat beside her. Definitely a good thing she hadn’t bothered with clean clothes.
“They’ll take me,” Bungie told her, his voice dark. “Come on, come on—I’m bleeding back here.”
“I just meant it might be better to try somewhere else,” she said, turning her head to look over the seat at him.
And caught her breath. From somewhere under his shirt he’d pulled out a gun.
Not the little .22 she’d seen him wave around when he was playing tough. This gun was a lot bigger, and a lot nastier.
And she’d seen it before somewhere. “Where did you get—?”
“Drive,” he said. The quietness of the order was somehow scarier even than his usual yelling.
Hastily, she turned back and fumbled the key into the ignition, an unpleasant tingle between her shoulder blades. The car started, and she pulled out into the street.
What the hell had the big idiot gotten himself into this time?
She’d walked past the VA hospital only once, a couple of months ago, but she remembered the way. Luckily, early-morning traffic in this part of Philadelphia was always light.
And as she drove, she tried to think.
This was bad. Dangerously bad. Bungie was as addicted to fights as he was to alcohol, but the worst she’d usually seen him with was bruises and maybe a few cuts. Packer was pretty good with those, though Nicole had never figured out where Bungie got the money to pay the old medic’s ridiculous fees. She probably didn’t want to know, either.
But minor cuts didn’t bleed like this. Bungie didn’t have the skill to boost a late-model car like the BMW, either.
And in all the years he’d been hanging around Trake and his group he’d never had a gun like that.
So: felonies. Probably up to his neck in them. Even if the VA hospital was willing to treat him, the minute they cut off his shirt and saw that big bleeder they’d probably call the cops. If it was a gunshot wound, she was pretty sure they had to call them.
But that wasn’t Nicole’s problem. She’d take him in, because buying points with Trake was a good idea and arguing with a bleeding man holding a gun wasn’t. But the minute he was out of sight, she would get as far away from him, his gun, and his stolen car as she could.
In fact, it might not be a bad idea to get out of the neighborhood completely for a few days. She had a little money saved—
She made a face. No, she didn’t. Everything she had was in her missing wallet.
Had Jasp taken it? He could have noticed that she put it under her pillow every night. But Jasp didn’t seem like the type for something that petty. More likely, she’d lost it somewhere at last night’s party. Maybe she’d lost her knife there, too.
Or maybe one of Trake’s guys had lifted it while she was too drunk to notice. There were enough jerks hanging around who would do something like that just for the fun of it.
Which still left her with no money and a burning need to lie low for a while.
Where could she go? She didn’t know many people outside of Trake’s group, and most of those also knew Bungie. Someplace farther out, maybe out of the city completely?
That might not be a bad idea. She’d been trying for months to get Trake to move her up from lookout to pickpocket, but he always said she needed more practice. Living and scoring on her own for a few days might be the chance to prove that she could do that.
The one thing she would absolutely not do was call her grandmother and ask for help. She’d face Bungie and his new gun before she’d do that.
Nicole jerked her attention back from unpleasant thoughts of her future to unpleasant thoughts of her present. The hospital was straight ahead, its VETERANS ADMINISTRATION sign prominent beside the drive entrance. “Is there an emergency room?” she asked, looking around. “I don’t see a sign.”
“Who said anything about an emergency room?” Bungie growled. “That lot over there—that’ll be where the doctors park. Go.”
Nicole frowned. She’d seen enough TV to know that doctors had special stickers on their cars for hospital parking lots. How did Bungie expect her to park in there without drawing attention they didn’t want?
But she didn’t dare argue the point. Not with Bungie in pain. Especially not with Bungie in pain and holding a gun.
“There,” he said, leaning over the backseat beside her, his breath unpleasantly hot in her ear, the gun twitching at the edge of her vision. “Getting out of his car—see him?”
“Yes,” Nicole said. The man was in his late twenties, about Bungie’s age, with short hair and a professional-looking suit. The car he was getting out of was bright red, with the kind of spindly-spoked wheels she’d always liked. There was no way to tell if he was a doctor, but he certainly looked like one.
“Get beside him,” Bungie ordered. “Come on, move it.”
Nicole pressed down on the pedal, sending the car leaping forward.
The doctor closed his door and did something with his key ring, making the lights flash and the horn give a short toot. Turning toward the hospital building, he headed briskly past the other parked cars. Nicole watched him out of the corner of her eye as she reached his row and turned into the narrow lane.
“Get beside him and stop,” Bungie said, and there was a sudden surge of cool air at the back of Nicole’s neck as he lowered the rear window.
“Wait a second,” Nicole said as she suddenly saw where he was going. Bad enough to be riding in a stolen car with him. But to help him with a kidnapping? That was a whole new level of bad. “How about I park here and go bring him to you? Okay? You know I can do it—just like how I got that guard out of the way a couple of weeks ago? You can rest here, and I’ll bring him back—”
“You ever try to outrun a bullet?” Bungie interrupted.
Nicole swallowed hard. “No.”
“Tell you right now, this isn’t the day to try,” he said quietly. “Now get beside him and stop.”
The doctor, his mind apparently on other things, didn’t seem to notice them until Nicole stopped the car. He looked up, a sort of mildly curious expression on his face—
“You a doctor?” Bungie demanded.
The man took a second look, and Nicole saw his expression stiffen. “The hospital’s right there,” he said, pointing at the big building behind them. “They can take care of you.”
“How about you take care of me?” Bungie said, lifting the gun into view over the windowsill. “Get in the car.”
A wave of fresh nausea swept through Nicole’s already queasy stomach. He was doing it. He was really, truly, doing it. “Easy, Bungie,” she said carefully. “This isn’t worth it. We can find another—”
“Shut up, or I’ll kill you both,” Bungie snarled. “I’ve already killed one man today. I’m in the mood. Get in the car, Doc. Now.”
It took the doctor a second to find his voice. “Look. I can see you’re upset—”
“How about seeing that I’ve got a gun?” Bungie cut him off. “Get in the damn car.”
“I don’t have anything to treat you with,” the doctor protested, his voice starting to crack. “Let me take you into the hospital—”
“You got a medical bag?”
The doctor swallowed. “In my car. But it’s not much more than a first-aid kit.”
“Good enough,” Bungie said. “Let’s go get it. Nice and slow.”
The doctor’s eyes flicked to Nicole. “Better do as he says,” she said. “He’s not in the greatest mood.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” the doctor said grimly. “Fine.”
He turned and headed back toward his car. Bungie tapped the back of Nicole’s head with his gun in silent order, and she let up on the brake, letting the car roll alongside the doctor.
Across the lot, a couple of other doctor types were chatting together as they walked toward the hospital, and Nicole found herself gripping the steering wheel tighter. If the doctor decided to risk shouting a warning to them …
Apparently, Bungie was thinking the same thing. “What’s your name, Doc?” he asked out the window.
“McNair,” the man said. “Sam McNair.”
“Got a family, Sam?”
“So no one would miss you if I blew you away?”
A muscle in McNair’s cheek tightened. “Take it easy,” he said. “I’m not going to make trouble.”
They traveled the rest of the way in silence. Nicole kept the car beside the doctor, her brain and head throbbing. Had Bungie really killed someone?
Maybe he had. It would explain the car and the gun. Probably his wound, too, if whoever he’d killed hadn’t gone quietly.
And now he’d said it out loud, and in front of a witness. So where did that leave her?
She didn’t know. All she could do was hope the doctor fixed Bungie well enough to travel, and that she could ditch him before the cops caught up with him.
They reached McNair’s car. “My bag’s in the trunk,” he told Bungie. “Wait here and I’ll go get it.”
“Better idea,” Bungie said with a grunt. “Stand right there—right there—where I can see you. Put it in park, Nicole, and give me a hand.”
He seemed weaker than he’d been when they’d left Jasp’s place, staggering as Nicole helped him out of the backseat. But his eyes were wide-open and alert, and she could see by the strain in his jaw and neck that he had his teeth clenched. Running on pure willpower now.
“Okay, Doc,” he said, keeping his gun pressed against his side where it wouldn’t be so visible to anyone passing by. “Nice and slow.”
Not that there was anyone passing by. In fact, as Nicole glanced around, she realized that for the moment the three of them were completely alone in the parking lot, probably as isolated as it was possible to get in a big city.
She hoped all that seclusion wouldn’t make Bungie feel secure enough to do something stupid.
The voices were getting stronger.
McNair led the way to the rear of his car and pulled out his key ring. For a second he seemed to hesitate, maybe wondering whether he dared risk hitting the panic button instead of the trunk release. Bungie didn’t say anything, but just took a step closer to him. The doctor’s cheek tightened, and with a quiet thunk the trunk popped and swung smoothly open. “Good choice,” Bungie rumbled. “Get it.”
For a second the two men locked eyes. Then, McNair’s cheek twitched again and he reached into the trunk and pulled out a black doctor-style bag. With his free hand, he reached up to close the trunk.
There was a puff of air on the back of Nicole’s neck, and a pair of arms slithered like snakes around her shoulders and locked together solidly across her chest.
A startled scream tried to explode from her throat. But all her muscles were suddenly frozen in place. Bungie spun around to face her, snarled something disbelieving as his gaze jerked upward to something above her head. He grabbed at Nicole’s arm, his fingers tightening around her rigid flesh as he swung his gun to point over her shoulder.
McNair gasped something and grabbed Bungie’s gun arm, either trying to wrestle the weapon away from him or else drag it off-target from wherever it was aimed. Bungie snarled and swung the arm back at him, slamming the side of the gun against the other’s forehead. McNair staggered, but managed to keep his grip. Bungie tried to bring the gun back around, but he was pulling against all of McNair’s weight, and it wasn’t working. The voices in Nicole’s head gave a sudden, shrieking gasp.
And out of nowhere two more figures appeared, one behind Bungie and one behind McNair. The newcomers’ arms darted around the men’s shoulders and their hands locked together, just like the arms that were holding Nicole.
But the attackers weren’t muggers or random strangers or security guards from the hospital.
They weren’t even people.
They were taller even than Bungie, at least six and a half feet tall, with thin bodies and arms and pure black eyes. They had no noses, their mouths seemed to be little more than wide slits, and their heads were completely bald. Their skin was a pale, silvery white that glistened in the early-morning sunlight. As Nicole stared in disbelief, the creatures unfolded large, shimmering butterfly-type wings from their backs. The wings stretched up and out into the morning breeze.
An instant later, the world vanished.
Not the way it disappeared when Nicole drifted off into a drunken sleep, going gradually blurry as consciousness faded away. This disappearance was sudden, complete, painless, and terrifying.
Maybe not quite complete. She couldn’t see the car or the parking lot or the Philadelphia skyline or even Bungie and McNair. The whole world seemed to have turned a black so total that she felt like she could stretch out her hand and run her fingers through it. But she could still see the arms wrapped around her chest.
With nothing else for her to look at, and with another scream trying desperately to escape her frozen throat, she forced herself to concentrate on the arms.
Her attacker’s skin wasn’t silvery white, like she’d first thought. Instead, the skin itself was pure white, with an overlay of crisscrossing silver threads that gave it its metallic sheen. The fingers were interlocked together, but as she looked closely she could see that there were six fingers on each hand instead of five, and that the two on the ends both seemed to be thumbs.
That would have freaked her out, she thought dully, if her mind hadn’t already been completely freaked out by all the rest of it.
Don’t worry, Nicole. I won’t let you go.
Nicole felt her breath catch in her still-frozen throat. Suddenly, for a single moment, the normally wordless voices in her head had spoken words.
And they’d spoken the words to her. Not to somebody else, but to her, Nicole Hammond. Personally.
The horrifying stories of voices telling people to kill themselves were running through her mind when the blackness in front of her was ripped away like that street magician she’d seen once pull the black cloth off his hat.
But it wasn’t a pigeon that appeared in front of her, like it had from the magician’s hat. It was Bungie and Dr. McNair, standing exactly where they’d been when Nicole’s world disappeared. The silvery-white butterfly people were also there, one of them still standing behind each of them.
But they were no longer standing in the hospital parking lot. They were in a tall-ceilinged round room with dim overhead lighting and hundreds of glowing or flashing colored lights dotting the room’s curved walls. Between the lights, the walls seemed to be covered in a crosshatch of the same kind of silvery threads that were on the butterfly people’s skin.
From somewhere in front of her came a sudden whooshing sound, and a section of the wall that didn’t have any lights swung open, letting in a dazzling blaze of light. Through the ringing in her ears she heard the sound of footsteps, and as she squinted against the light she saw the black silhouette of a figure walking toward them. She couldn’t see a face in the glare, but from the way it walked she had the impression that it was a shortish, broad-shouldered human instead of another butterfly person.
Abruptly, it stopped. For a moment it stood still, and Nicole found herself tensing. Then, with a snort, it stepped to the side of the opening and bit out a couple of words in some crazy foreign language.
A moment later another shadow from outside the round room appeared and walked toward them, this one much taller and broader than the first shadow. As it came close, some of the reflected light bounced back from the walls onto its face and body and Nicole was finally able to make out some details.
It wasn’t just a big person, like she’d thought. Nor was it another of the butterfly people. Its face was utterly unlike anything she’d ever seen, reminding her somehow of a squashed shark face, complete with sets of gills on its neck. Its body was even worse, looking like it had been made by pouring a thousand glass marbles into a mold. The shoulder and hip and knee joints didn’t seem quite right, and the creature’s hands were thick and broad, like the paws of some horrible movie monster.
Nicole tried to shrink back, another scream boiling up inside her. But she still couldn’t move, and this scream was just as unable to escape her paralyzed throat as all the others had been. The marble monster stopped two feet away from her and reached out his hands.
And for the second time that horrible, terrifying morning, the world went black.
Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Zahn