Under the Autumn Stars by Tim Waggoner
Halloween night is one of my first –and best – memories.
I was just shy of eight months old. I was my parents’ first child, and my mom was excited when Halloween came around. She dressed me in a pink bunny costume, and I had no idea why she put me into this strange outfit. Mom put on a light jacket, picked me up, and we headed out.
It was cool, but not cold. The weather was near perfect. I hadn’t been outside at night before, at least not for very long, and I was fascinated with how different the world looked. It seemed bigger somehow and quieter. And the shadows! The darkness smudged objects, softened them, concealed details that were all too visible in the light of day. I wasn’t scared, though. I’m not sure I knew what fear was yet.
I saw people walking on the sidewalks, most of them small, but there were some mommies and daddies among them. As we drew closer to some of these others, I saw that the smaller ones all looked different. Their clothes – some dark, some colorful – were like nothing I’d ever seen before. And their faces. . . They were strange and distorted, features frozen in unchanging expressions. Some smiled, some snarled. Some had straight white human teeth, some had sharp animal teeth. At first I wasn’t sure what these creatures were, but after a time I came to realize they were smaller humans – I’m not sure I understood the concept of children yet – and that their bizarre faces were like my bunny outfit.
I watched kids go up to houses, knock or ring the bell, chant some words I didn’t recognize, and hold out bags or plastic buckets. The grown-up who lived at the house would compliment the kids on how scary they looked, and then toss a few small somethings into their bags. The kids would say thank you more or less in unison, and head off to the next house.
This memory makes me wonder if that experience was the birth of my love for all things dark and wonderful. Horror movies, toys, comics, magazines, novels – all eventually leading to my own work in the field. And I can see the seeds of my own writing style in my memory of that long ago night. The surreal nature of the experience, a “character” trying to understand the strange transformation of the world around him . . . So much of who and what I am, and what I’ve given the world, can be traced to that one Halloween, and to a young mother who thought it would be fun to dress her baby in a silly costume and carry him around the neighborhood.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Tim Waggoner is giving away a signed hardcover copy of his latest horror novel The Mouth of the Dark. Comment below or email email@example.com with the subject title HH Contest Entry for a chance to win.
BIO: Tim Waggoner has published over forty novels and five collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Writer’s Workshop of Horror, and Where Nightmares Come From. In 2017 he received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. His fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and in 2016, the Horror Writers Association honored him with the Mentor of the Year Award. In addition to writing, he’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College.
My latest novel, The Mouth of the Dark: https://www.amazon.com/Mouth-Dark-Fiction-without-Frontiers/dp/1787580113/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536604317&sr=8-1&keywords=tim+waggoner
SAMPLE OF THE MOUTH OF THE DARK
It’s dark, the air hot, thick, and heavy. She’s naked, skin coated with a layer of slime that makes her itch all over. She wants to scratch – God, how she wants to – but she can’t move. She’s held fast, like an insect trapped in tree sap, her back, arms, and legs pressed into some kind of sticky substance, leaving only her head free. She faces downward, head hanging. She’s too weak to lift it, and since she can’t see anything, why bother?
She’s not alone. She can hear others breathing. Sometimes she hears them moan softly, but she never hears them speak. She figures they’re not strong enough to talk. She knows she isn’t. She senses that they’re stuck in the same whatever-it-is as she, but she has no real way of knowing. They just feel close to her.
There are still others here, wherever here is. These others are not constrained, and they move around freely. They aren’t here often, coming and going as they please, and they never speak. At least, she’s never heard them do so. They move almost silently, but she’s been hanging here long enough that she’s learned to detect the subtle sounds that they make. The rustle of cloth, the soft padding of rubber-soled shoes.… Most times they go past her without stopping, and she’s very grateful when this happens. Other times they do stop, and then.…
She doesn’t like to think about what happens then.
She sleeps much of the time. At least, she thinks she does. How can she tell when it’s always dark and quiet and time has no meaning? She can’t remember the last time she ate or drank. She’s not hungry or thirsty, though. She thinks the slime that coats her flesh might be feeding her somehow, but it’s only a guess. It could just as easily be killing her. How would she know?
Time passes – she doesn’t know how much – and eventually she hears the distinct rustle of cloth. Although it’s pitch-black, she closes her eyes, the way a very young child might do in the hope that if she can’t see anything then she can’t be seen either. She wills the Other to pass her by. She doesn’t bother praying. She may not know much about this dark place, but she knows this much: prayers don’t work here.
The rustling grows louder, closer, and then it stops. She hears faint breathing – shallow and even – and she senses a presence close by. She squeezes her eyes shut tighter, as if by doing so she can banish the Other standing beneath her. She struggles to speak, to say No, please don’t, but the most she can do is let out a near-silent exhalation of breath as she mouths the words. It doesn’t matter. Even if she could scream the words, she knows her plea would be ignored.
She hears another rustle of cloth and feels something cold and hard press against her bare abdomen. It’s rounded and solid, metal of some kind, she thinks. She imagines it’s the end of some kind of staff. She can feel weight behind it, as if someone’s pressing it against her flesh. The slime retreats from the spot where the metal touches, as if to make sure not to interfere with what is to come next. Or maybe it fears the metal’s touch as much as she does.
The metal begins to grow warmer the longer it’s pressed against her, and the heat quickly becomes uncomfortable, then painful, then agonizing, until finally it becomes excruciating. There’s light, too, and she can see it blaze even through her closed lids. Tears pour from her eyes and she grits her teeth so hard she wouldn’t be surprised if they shatter. It’s at this point that she always wishes she will pass out from the pain, but she never does. She thinks it’s because the Others don’t want her to.
Then, when it feels as if the metal is molten-hot and will burn a hole all the way through her to the spine, the rod is removed, and she hears the Other step back several feet. Even though the metal is no longer in contact with her body, her abdomen still burns. She feels the warmth inside her now, feeding on her, growing stronger, becoming…something. Her abdomen swells rapidly, as if she’s experiencing a hyper-fast pregnancy. Her flesh grows tighter, harder, until finally it splits down the middle and something slides out of her with a wet sucking sound. It hits the floor with a heavy smack and just lies there.
The pain is beyond anything she’s ever felt before being brought to this place, beyond anything she’s ever imagined was possible for a human body to experience, let alone endure. She hopes the pain will kill her this time. At least then she won’t have to go through this anymore. But then the Other steps forward and touches the staff to her abdomen again. This time the metal’s touch is cool and soothing, and she feels the terrible injury that’s been done to her start to heal.
No, she thinks. Please, let me bleed out.…
When the repair is complete, the Other removes the staff or rod or whatever it is and walks away, off to tend to another of the trapped. The thing that fell out of her is left behind, and after a while it begins to move, making moist sounds as sticky limbs slide against each other. Finally, it stands, and she can hear the wet sounds of its bare feet moving as it readjusts its weight, struggling to remain standing. It comes closer to her, puts its lips to her ear, and whispers its first words.
“Have you seen this woman?”
Jayce Lewis held out a flier with a color photo of Emory on it, one of a stack that he carried under his arm. Then, realizing how clichéd and impersonal the question sounded, he added, “She’s my daughter, and she used to work here. She’s…missing.”
He hated using the word missing. As if she’d merely been misplaced. But it was better than abducted, and infinitely better than dead.
The man behind the CrazyQwik convenience store counter was in his early forties, Jayce guessed. About a decade younger than he was. His hair was slate-gray and he wore it pulled back in a ponytail. He was clean-shaven, without a hint of stubble, despite the lateness of the hour. He was thin – unhealthily so – and his skin had a sickly cast. The man, Virgil according to his nametag, didn’t take the flier from Jayce. Instead he leaned over the counter to get a closer look at it. He gave off a strange scent, an acrid-sweet odor, like rotting flowers, and Jayce wondered if the guy was ill. He smelled like he was being eaten away from the inside. Jayce tried to keep the disgust he felt from showing on his face as he drew his head back and turned it slightly to the side to avoid the worst of the smell. It didn’t help, though. The odor was too strong.
Virgil stared at Emory’s photo for several moments, not blinking the entire time, as if he was focusing all his concentration on it, absorbing every detail and committing it to memory.
“The picture’s a couple years old,” Jayce said. It was, in fact, Emory’s senior high school picture, and it had been taken about two years ago. It was the most recent photo of her that he had. In it, she wore a white blouse and posed with one arm across a blue velvet platform, chin resting lightly on her other hand. Her brown hair was long and straight, and she wore minimal makeup that highlighted her features without being obvious about it. Her mouth was quirked up at one side in a half smile, and there was a mischievous glint in her eyes that said, I know something you don’t. She was beautiful, and this picture made her look even more so. Jayce wished he had a more ordinary, plain photo of her, though. He had the feeling that Virgil was staring so intently at her picture because of how she looked, not because the man gave a rat’s ass about helping him find her.
This was the first time Jayce had been in CrazyQwik. He’d never seen one before, so he assumed it was a local store and not part of a chain. The store stocked the usual types of products – snacks, drinks, cigarettes, magazines, and the like – but there were odd differences, too. There was a small section for what looked like taxidermy supplies labeled Necromantia, and a section called Ferricles that displayed twisted pieces of rust-covered scrap metal. What anyone would want with those, Jayce had no idea. The coolers in the rear of the store contained another oddity. Inside were clay jars, lids sealed with wax, none of them the exact same size and shape. There were markings carved onto their surfaces, symbols that made no sense to Jayce, and he figured they must indicate the jars’ contents. Jayce wasn’t the only customer in CrazyQwik that evening. A woman stood in front of the cooler, a contemplative look on her face, as if she was trying to decide which jar to select. She made no move to open the cooler door, though. Instead, she took a step back, as if to get a broader perspective on the problem.
Jayce guessed her to be in her mid-to-late thirties, although it was difficult to tell her age from the way she was dressed. She wore all black – a long-sleeved blouse, glasses, skirt, leggings, and knee-high boots with thick rubber soles. She wore larger silver hoop earrings that had gossamer-thin filaments inside that shimmered in the light and made him think of dew-covered spider silk. It was a strange effect, but beautiful. The woman was short, five feet tall, maybe an inch or two shorter. Her long black hair was thick and full of body, and it looked slightly mussed, like she’d just gotten out of bed. She wasn’t typically pretty, but she was striking. Her features were sharp, and she exuded a relaxed confidence that Jayce found attractive and more than a little intimidating.
Virgil finished examining Emory’s picture, and he leaned back and looked at Jayce.
“Don’t know her. Sorry.”
“Like I said, it’s an older picture of her. She worked here for a while, though.” He didn’t say how long because he didn’t know. There was a lot he didn’t know about Emory. Too much.
Virgil shrugged again.
That shrug was starting to piss Jayce off. But he kept his irritation from showing on his face or in his voice. Suppressing his emotions came easily to him. Too easily, according to his ex-wife.
“Who schedules the employees? Is there a manager I can talk to?”
“We don’t have managers per se,” Virgil said. “We don’t really have schedules, either.”
Jayce frowned. “How does that work?”
He gave another goddamned shrug. “It’s hard to explain. Basically, you show up when you want to, work for as long as you want, and then leave.”
Jayce wondered if the man was putting him on.
“How do you get paid?”
“We take money out of the register before we go. Only five percent, though. You can’t take any more. If you do.…” Another shrug.
Jayce was pissed now, but still fought to keep from showing it.
“Look, I don’t mind you messing with me, as long as you tell me the truth about my daughter. So I’ll ask one more time, and please – no joking. Do you know her?”
Before Virgil could respond, a woman’s hand reached out and took the flier from Jayce. The woman in black held a clay jar in her left hand, and the flier in her right as she examined Emory’s picture. There were words on the flier, too, of course. Details about Emory – age, height, weight, the date she went missing, where she was last seen, a contact number for Jayce and a promise of a reward for information leading to finding her: $5,000. Not much, Jayce supposed, but it was all he had in savings.
“She’s lovely.” The woman gazed at Emory’s face a moment before handing the flier back to Jayce. “I’m sorry.”
He took it from her, unsure what to say. Now that they were face to face, he could see she had bright, almost piercing green eyes, and having them trained on him was exciting and intimidating in equal measure. Like Virgil, she had an odd scent, but unlike his, hers wasn’t unpleasant. She had a faint woody odor, kind of like acorns. A strange choice for a perfume, he thought, but he kind of liked it. It reminded him of being in the woods.
“Have you seen her?” he managed to get out. “She’s been missing for two weeks. Eighteen days, actually. I guess that’s almost three weeks, isn’t it?” Time flew when your daughter vanished off the face of the Earth.
The woman didn’t take the flier from him to give it a second look. She kept her green-eyed gaze fixed on him as she answered.
“No, I haven’t.”
Jayce nodded for lack of any other response. Then he returned his attention to Virgil.
“Can I leave a flier here for you to put up in the window?” He held the flier out, and after a moment’s hesitation, Virgil took it.
“I’ll tape it to the counter,” he said. “Stuff doesn’t last long in the window, a half hour tops, and it’s gone. Just kind of…decays, you know?”
Jayce didn’t know if the man was making another joke or if he was a few letters short of an alphabet. Maybe both, he decided. But he didn’t want the guy to crumple the flier and toss it in the trash after he left, so he smiled and thanked him. He gave the woman a parting smile as well, then turned and headed for the door.
Behind him he heard a soft thump as the woman put her jar on the counter, and then heard voices as she and Virgil began speaking to one another. Were they talking about him? Why else would they be talking so softly? He told himself he was being paranoid, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were discussing him – or perhaps Emory.
He tried to put his suspicions out of his mind and focus on the positive. If Virgil made good on his promise to display the flier, there was an excellent chance one or more of the CrazyQwik’s customers would recognize Emory, and maybe – just maybe – someone might have some information about what had happened to her and where she was.
Jayce wasn’t surprised the store – and its employee – was weird. The Cannery was a mix of fast-food joints, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, seedy bars, funky small businesses, and more than a few abandoned and boarded-up buildings. It wasn’t exactly the safest place in Oakmont, and he wouldn’t have ventured into it if it hadn’t been for Emory.
He opened the door, setting off a two-note electronic tone – bee-baw – and stepped out into the night. It was the first week of March, and a light rain fell. It had snowed last week, and several inches remained on the ground. The roads and sidewalks had long since been cleared, though, and Jayce hoped winter was finally on its way out. It had been a hard one, with heavier-than-average snowfall and frigid temperatures, and he wouldn’t be sorry to see it go. And if Emory were out on the streets somewhere, living homeless, at least she wouldn’t have to deal with extreme cold. Then again, if she was on the streets of the Cannery, he supposed the weather would be among the least of her worries.
He wore a leather jacket with a removable lining to provide extra protection from the cold. He had gloves, but he’d left them in his pocket. He didn’t have a hat, hated wearing the damn things. They always mussed his hair and filled it with static. He unzipped his jacket halfway and tucked the fliers inside to protect them from the rain. He held them close to his body and then zipped up the jacket. He’d started at CrazyQwik because Emory had worked there, but he had a lot of fliers, and he was determined to pass them all out before he went home. This evening, frustrated by the police’s lack of interest in Emory’s case – Young girls take off all the time without telling their families. She’ll get in touch when she’s ready – he’d decided to begin searching on his own. He’d gone home after work and started making a missing-person flier on his laptop. It took him a while to get to the point where he was satisfied with it, though. He was an insurance agent, not a graphic designer, but he thought the final result wasn’t half bad. When it was finished, he printed fifty copies and then, after reconsidering, printed fifty more. CrazyQwik had been his first stop, and he was disappointed in how it had turned out. He knew it was foolish, but he’d hoped that he’d learn something important there. Maybe even discover that Emory wasn’t really missing after all.
Emory? Yeah, she hasn’t been in here for a while. She moved in with a new boyfriend. Bobby Something. He works at the Harley-Davidson store on the other side of town.
So now that CrazyQwik had turned out to be a bust, he wasn’t certain where to try next. He knew so little of the life his daughter had made for herself since graduating high school, and he had no idea where to continue looking for her. Whatever he did next, he didn’t want to keep standing out here in the rain, even as light as it was. He decided he’d try the businesses on either side of CrazyQwik, a tattoo shop called Stained and a secondhand store called Dregs. He decided on Dregs first. Emory couldn’t have made much money working at CrazyQwik, and there was a good chance she shopped for clothes at Dregs. He turned right and headed for the store.
Traffic cruised by in both directions, not heavy but steady. The sidewalks weren’t crowded, probably due to the rain, but then again, it was a Tuesday night. Things probably picked up around here on the weekends. The buildings were old in the Cannery and set close together, and the street was narrow. There were streetlamps, old-fashioned things that put out weak yellow light that did little to illuminate the neighborhood. Shadows were everywhere, clinging to buildings like a black coating, pooling on the sidewalks and in the gutters like dark water, filling the alleys like something solid.
He heard his mother’s voice then, whispering a warning.
Be careful. The world’s a dangerous place.
How many times had he heard her say that while he was growing up? Thousands, he supposed. But that didn’t make her wrong.
As he passed in front of the alley between CrazyQwik and Dregs, he heard movement. Scuffling, skittering, a growl, a chunk, then a brief sharp whine. He knew better than to stop, knew he should keep going to Dregs, or maybe head straight to his car, go home, and come back tomorrow when it was light out. But he did stop, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to him, and he turned to face the darkness that filled the alley. He heard new sounds now – wet tearing noises followed by moans of satisfaction. He felt a warning prickle on the back of his neck, accompanied by a surge of cold panic in his chest. He needed to get out of here. Now.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
A man’s voice, followed by shuffling footsteps.
“You some kind of pervert?”
The second voice was female, and she sounded even angrier than her companion.
You could run.
His mother’s voice, sounding far calmer than he felt.
He was fifty-one years old, and he spent most of his time sitting behind a desk. He was twenty pounds overweight – at least – and the most exercise he got was walking to and from his car. Even with the help of adrenaline, he doubted he’d make it an entire block without having to stop and gulp for air. Besides, if he ran, he might drop the fliers, and he couldn’t bear the thought of them being scattered on the sidewalk to be rained on and stepped on. So he stood his ground as a pair of figures emerged from the alley. They were younger than he expected, in their teens, and both wore jackets, jeans, and sneakers. The girl was brunette, her hair buzzed short in a military-style cut. The boy’s hair was black and it was cut in the same style. But their similar hairstyles didn’t make much of an impression on Jayce. He was too busy staring at the dark smears around their mouths and the dark splotches on their clothes. But far more disturbing were the large hunting knives the teens carried. The blades were slick with the same dark substance that smeared their lips, and thick drops fell from the metal and hit the ground with audible plaps.
It’s blood, he thought. He’d never seen blood in dim light before, and he was surprised by how black it looked.
The teens rushed toward him, and the boy reached forward, grabbed hold of Jayce’s jacket collar with his free hand, and pulled him into the alley with surprising strength. He shoved Jayce against the alley wall and pressed the point of his knife to the fleshy underside of Jayce’s chin. The back of Jayce’s head smacked against brick when the kid shoved him, and bright pain flared behind his eyes.
“I asked what you were looking at,” the boy said.
They were still close enough to the alley’s mouth for the streetlamp’s feeble light to penetrate, and Jayce saw that the boy’s teeth came to sharp little points. The girl hung back, but she smiled, revealing equally sharp teeth. The newly shaved heads, the filed teeth…were these two in some kind of bizarre gang? If so, it was one Jayce had never heard of.
Jayce’s head throbbed, and he felt dizzy and nauseated. He forced himself to stay calm, though – or at least as calm as possible – as he spoke.
“Have.… Have either of you seen my daughter?”
The boy frowned and then he turned to the girl and they exchanged confused looks.
“She’s missing,” Jayce continued. “I have fliers in my jacket. I’ll show you one if you’ll.…”
The boy returned his attention to Jayce, looked at him for a moment, and then nodded. He took the knife away from Jayce’s throat and stepped back, but he didn’t lower his blade. Moving slowly, Jayce unzipped his jacket and removed the fliers. They’d gotten a bit crumpled when the boy had shoved him against the wall, but they were still usable. He held the entire stack out for the teens to look at. The girl came forward then and the two of them leaned their heads forward slightly and squinted, and he had the impression that they could make out Emory’s picture fine despite the poor light in the alley. A strong odor like wet dog came from the teens, and since Jayce was already nauseated from the head blow, the stink brought him close to vomiting.
“She’s pretty,” the girl said.
The rain had picked up by this point, and it had washed most of the blood from her mouth, but not all. And quite a bit still clung to her knife.
“Don’t be stupid, Reta,” the boy snapped. “It’s a trick. The poster’s fake. He probably doesn’t even have a daughter.”
She turned to him, a skeptical expression on her face. “Why would he be walking around the Cannery with a fake poster?”
“Because he wants our meat.” The boy shot Jayce a dark look. “Don’t you?”
Jayce had no idea what the kid was talking about, but the teens’ blood-smeared mouths and knives told him that whatever meat meant in this instance, it wasn’t good.
“I don’t,” Jayce said. “Really. I just want to find my daughter.”
The girl stepped forward and examined Emory’s picture more closely.
“She does look kind of old.”
The boy nodded. “Not exactly an Amber Alert candidate, right?”
This is what you get for coming down here at night, Mother said. You should’ve stayed at home and let the police do the searching.
Jayce wanted to explain to the teens that adults went missing too, but he was suddenly struck by the bizarre absurdity of the situation. He was standing with his back against an alley wall, head throbbing, gut twisted with nausea, while sharp-toothed, knife-wielding teenagers debated about whether or not his flier was legit.
“Look, I don’t care if you believe, me,” Jayce said. “But I’ve got a lot more fliers to distribute, so –”
He started to step away from the wall, hoping that if he could make it back to the sidewalk the kids might leave him alone. But before he could move more than a couple inches, the boy rushed toward him and swept his knife in a horizontal arc. The tip of the blade sliced the back of Jayce’s hand, and he dropped the stack of fliers he’d been holding. The papers tumbled to the alley floor, and at first he was more upset about that than he was by the wound on his hand. But then the pain registered, and he drew in a hissing breath and held up his hand to examine it. The boy had sliced a thin line just behind his knuckles and blood poured from the cut. It fell onto the fliers scattered on the ground at his feet, the thick drops splattering on the paper like crimson rain.
Jayce grabbed his hand to put pressure on the wound and cradled it to his chest. Blood smeared on his jacket, but he barely noticed.
Told you, Mother said, sounding smug.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Jayce shouted at the boy. “Why don’t you go back to cutting up whatever the hell you were working on and leave me alone?”
The girl gave the boy a doubtful look. “I think he really might be telling the truth, Zach.”
The boy gave Jayce a venomous glare.
“Bullshit. He’s a meat-thief, plain and simple. And you know what we do to those.” He grinned, displaying his sharpened teeth.
“I don’t want to waste time on him,” the girl said in a near-whine. “I’m hungry.”
Zach held up his knife and angled it back and forth slowly, as if he were imagining doing the same thing with the blade inside Jayce’s body.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It won’t take long.”
Jayce’s yelling at the boy had been fueled by adrenaline and anger, but now all he felt was fear.
“Fine.” The girl sighed theatrically. “It’ll go faster if I help.”
She stepped toward Jayce and raised her own knife as she came.
He might have been able to fight off one of them, but two?
I always figured you’d end up dead in an alley somewhere, Mother said. If you’d listened to me.…
“I can’t believe you’ve left your kill unattended for so long.”
Jayce and the teens looked toward the mouth of the alley. A woman stood there, the one who Jayce had seen in the CrazyQwik. She held a white plastic bag which he assumed contained the clay jar she’d bought. Her tone was calm and her body relaxed, but her eyes were cold and serious.
“Fuck off, cunt,” Zach said.
“Hey!” Reta smacked him hard on the shoulder. “Show some respect!”
“Fine.” He looked at the woman again. “Fuck off, Ms. Cunt.”
“That’s better,” Reta said, then giggled.
The woman’s body language didn’t change, but her gaze grew even colder. She reached into the plastic bag, removed the clay jar, and held it up so the teens could see it. Neither of them said anything for several seconds. They just looked at the jar, expressions unreadable. Finally, Zach spoke.
“So you’ve got a vessel. Big deal.” A pause, and then in a less-confident voice, “What’s in it?”
“The screams of a hundred dying men,” the woman said. “Can you imagine the kind of damage they’d do if I released them in an enclosed space like this?”
Jayce had no idea what the hell she was talking about, but as long as it kept the sharp-toothed teens from gutting him, he didn’t care.
Zach and Reta exchanged glances.
“A hundred’s not so many,” Reta said, sounding uncertain. “Besides, anything that happens to us happens to him too.” She jerked her chin in Jayce’s direction. “He’s in the line of fire just as much as we are.”
“What makes you think I give a shit about him?” the woman asked. “I don’t like dog-eaters, that’s all.”
The teens bared their teeth at the woman, but they made no move toward her. The strange standoff continued for several long moments, Jayce cradling his bleeding hand and wondering if the situation would be resolved before he passed out from blood loss. Finally, the teens lowered their knives.
“C’mon,” Zach said to Reta. “Let’s go finish our dinner.”
“About goddamned time,” she muttered. She turned away, started walking deeper into the alley, and within seconds was swallowed by darkness.
Zach gave Jayce a parting look.
“I’ll be watching for you, thief.”
Then he too walked into the darkness and was gone. A moment later, the sounds of tearing flesh and loud chewing filled the air, and Jayce thought about what the woman had called them. Dog-eaters. He understood then that it wasn’t merely an expression. His stomach lurched, and he almost threw up, but he concentrated on the pain in his hand and his nausea subsided. He turned to the mouth of the alley, intending to thank the woman for helping him, but she was gone. Of course she was.
He thought about retrieving the fliers he’d dropped, but they were wet from rain and blood, and he left them where they were. He could always print out more. Still cradling his wounded hand to his chest and putting pressure on the cut, he walked out of the alley and headed toward his car – a silver Altima – a trip to the emergency room in his immediate future.