It was already dark by the time I zoomed out of the mountains, heading east toward the deserts and the town of Magellan. The elevation dropped, the cool green of pine country fell behind, and the heat returned. Lightning forked far to the south, the approaching storm tingling through my body like a lover’s touch.
By the time I reached Winslow and glided through its traffic lights, clouds had blotted out the stars, but still there was no rain. I took the road under the railroad bridge at the same time a freight train rumbled over it, then I headed south to open desert, my Harley throbbing in the quiet.
Fingers of lightning lit the clouds with intense white, and I lapped up the residue like a greedy cat. I’m a Stormwalker, which is my father’s people’s way of saying I can harness the power of storms for my own use. On a calm day, I can’t work much more than simple spells, but put a storm near me, and I can make the wind, lightning, and rain dance to my bidding. I’m good at it. Deadly.
Storm magic drove me crazy and left me more hungover than a three-day bender, but too long between storms had the same result. I hadn’t tasted a storm in the two weeks since I’d moved to Magellan to investigate the disappearance of Amy McGuire, the police chief’s daughter. I needed a fix.
I took the turnoff that led to Magellan. The smudge of the small town’s lights beckoned to me from twenty miles away. The larger glitter of Flat Mesa, the county seat, lay a little north. The red taillights of a pickup bobbed ahead of me as it dipped and rose through the washes. Half of the left light was broken, giving the truck an uneven look. No one else was on the road with us.
A sudden gust of wind threatened to knock me off my bike, and a voice floated on it across the dark desert.
I skidded to a halt, heart hammering, and dragged off my helmet. Wind buffeted me, clouds flowing toward me thick and fast.
Daughter. The whisper was feminine, soft, almost loving.
Oh, holy crap.
The other reason I’d come to Magellan was to face my mother and stop her, like I should have stopped her years ago. But I’d been too young then, too scared. The invitation to investigate Amy’s disappearance gave me the opportunity to return, and this time, I would fight her. As soon as I figured out how to.
Six years had passed since I’d met my mother, in, of all places, a diner in Holbrook, where she’d scared the shit out of me. It was easy to convince myself that I was ready to confront her while safe behind the heavily warded walls of my new hotel, not so easy out here in open desert with the vortexes beckoning to me. Here in the darkness, alone under this vast sky, I had to admit that she still scared the shit out of me.
Come to me.
“Like hell.” When I’d met my mother, she’d done her best to make me her willing slave, but I had this problem with free will. I liked it.
“Not this time!” I shouted.
The whisper died on the wind as lightning flared. The electricity of it sparkled through my fingers and pinged across my helmet.
The storm magic was earth magic, which I’d inherited from my grandmother, a small Navajo woman who was stronger than she looked. My mother came from Beneath, the same realm that created the skinwalkers, and I’d inherited magic from her too. My mother didn’t much like earth magic, because although earth magic had enabled me to be born at all, it also made me strong enough to withstand her.
I put on my helmet, my fingers shaking, and glided onward. A curtain of rain washed over me, its sudden chill welcome. I caught up to the pickup, whoever it was traveling slowly, and I realized that the encounter had taken only a few short moments.
I pulled into the oncoming lane of the two-lane road to pass the truck. Another sheet of lightning ran through the sky, reaching from the mesas to the south and spreading in all directions. It lit the clouds in cold, white radiance, and in that light I saw a giant figure burst from the side of the road, heading directly for me.
I hit my brakes, cranking my bike sideways, trying desperately to avoid the impact. A horrible stench filled the air as the figure missed my front wheel and struck the pickup with a resounding boom.
My back tire skidded out from under me on the rain-soaked pavement. At the same time, the pickup rose into the air, almost in slow motion. It rotated once, twice, before it crashed to the pavement, landing on its cab. The pickup screeched forward upside down a few yards, sparks flying into the night, before it lay still like a dead thing.
My bike kept skidding. I missed the truck by inches, was thrown free of the Harley, and landed facedown in a rapidly filling ditch.
I lay unmoving in the wet dirt, the face shield of my helmet cracked. My bike sprawled on its side next to me, front wheel bent, my legs just as bent under me.
No one moved inside the pickup. It was black dark out here; I couldn’t even discern the color of the truck. I could still smell the skinwalker, though, lurking in the darkness beyond us. My mother could control the things, who thrived on the energy of the vortexes, and she’d sent this one to discipline me. Not kill me—I knew she didn’t want me dead, just obedient. I wouldn’t be useful to her if I were dead.
I struggled out of my helmet. My gloves had ripped, and blood slicked my grip. I unfolded myself painfully and climbed to my feet, dragging in aching breaths.
I heard the skinwalker coming back. The legends of my people said that skinwalkers were human sorcerers who dabbled in dark magic, wrapping themselves in skins of dead animals to take on that animal’s characteristics. True about the dead animals part, usually after they’d tortured them, but skinwalkers weren’t human. They were throwbacks to the previous shell world, the one Beneath, where my mother was a goddess. Skinwalkers were evils, like demons, that should never have made it through to this world with the rest of humanity. But they had, clawing their way out and breeding down the generations.
It charged me. The thing was huge, about eight feet tall, wrapped, as far as I could tell, in the skin of a dead bear. Faster than fast, stinking like the worst charnel house, it picked me up and slammed me down on the road again. I hit and kicked, making no more of a dent than if I’d hit a wall. It put its filthy face close to mine, lips pulling back from yellow teeth.
I screamed. Not that it would help. No one lived out here, and whoever had been in the pickup wasn’t getting out.
The storm answered me. Thunder cracked in the distance, and I reached desperately for the lightning. I couldn’t create storms or move them; I could only use what nature decided to give me, but if the storm was close enough . . .
Lightning flowed from the black cloud and into my outstretched hands. I exhaled in relief. It wasn’t very strong, the storm still too far away, but it would help. I gathered what lightning I could and threw it at the skinwalker. The skinwalker grunted with the impact and danced back a yard or so, but that was about all I could manage. I scrambled to my feet.
Skinwalkers are damn hard to kill. This one was shambling toward me again. I reached for the wind and raised my hands to direct it at the disgusting thing. The skinwalker stumbled. I hit it again and again with wind power, throwing sparks of lightning into the mix.
The skinwalker ran at me again, bent on destruction. I didn’t think my mother wanted it to kill me, but did it know that?
The creature made it back to the road. Instead of pummeling me, it turned and kicked my bike.
“No!” I shouted. That bike was my baby. This old girl and me had racked up a lot of miles. She symbolized my freedom, my independence, me. I grabbed a handful of lightning and blasted the skinwalker. Electricity arced around him, but he still didn’t die.
At times like these, I regretted riding away from Mick, my man of wild fire magic. I’d seen Mick burn up a skinwalker without breaking a sweat. Mick had made me crazy with his mixture of bad-boy charm, protectiveness, and elusiveness, but my time with him had also been the best of my life.
Before we’d parted ways, Mick had given me six light spells locked into little silver balls. I had one in my pocket now, the last of the remaining two. The balls, when activated, radiated a white light that drove away every shadow—temporarily. They had no heat, only light, but they were useful in emergencies, against skinwalkers or demons or Nightwalkers, creatures that shunned the light.
The electricity ebbed, the storm diminishing. The skinwalker came at me, a murderous look in its red eyes.
The situation definitely qualified as an emergency. I dug into my pocket, digging out the spell that was about the size of a ball bearing. It didn’t take much magic to activate them, which meant I could use them whether I had a handy storm or not.
The skinwalker loomed over me, huge fists ready to crush me. I lifted the spell ball, but before I could call it to life, the skinwalker gave a sudden cry of anguish. A blue nimbus sprang up to surround it, one not created by me. The skinwalker fought it, trying to beat its way out, while I stood with my palm outstretched, watching in astonishment.
The skinwalker ran off into the darkness, still surrounded with glowing blue, until it was lost to sight. I blew out my breath in sudden relief and returned the spell ball to my pocket.
The stench receded, a sure sign the thing had gone. Had Mama called off her pet? Or had some other entity interfered? I didn’t know, and at the moment, I didn’t care.
I limped toward the pickup. The next burst of lightning revealed a dusty red truck that looked familiar, and my heart sank as I read the words on the now upside-down door, “Fremont Hansen, Install and Fix-It.”
“Shit,” I whispered. Fremont was the plumber I’d hired to help me restore the derelict hotel I’d bought on the outskirts of Magellan. Fremont was a friendly guy with a receding hairline and innocent brown eyes, who claimed to have a little magical ability of his own. “I can fix anything,” he’d boasted, wriggling his fingers.
I closed my bloody hand around my cell phone, but the fall had smashed it. Plastic shards stuck to my fingers, and the batteries dangled from useless wires.
I tossed the phone aside and crouched on the road next to the pickup’s cab. Blood coated the inside of the driver’s window, and I saw a head pressed against it.
“Fremont.” I tried the door, but I couldn’t budge it. I hobbled around to the other side of the truck, my leg hurting like hell. The passenger window was open. I saw no gleaming pebbles of glass, so the window must have already been open before the wreck. The man lay in the blackness inside, upside down, neck bent unnaturally.
I fumbled in the debris inside the truck and found no cell phone, and the frame was too crimped for me to open the glove compartment. I withdrew, my nose wrinkling with the stench of death.
Another flash of lightning lit the sky, farther to the east, the storm moving on. The lightning died, and red and blue lights took its place, accompanied by the wail of a siren. I sat down, exhausted, my back against the pickup, as a vehicle came charging toward me, headlights blinding.
An SUV with “Hopi County Sheriff’s Department” painted on its side stopped a few feet from me, its tires sliding a little on the wet pavement. The door popped open, and booted feet hit the asphalt, followed by sharply creased khaki pants. The boots were polished to a sheen, strange for a man who worked in the dusty desert all day.
Nash Jones, sheriff of tiny Hopi County, squatted down next to me, regarding me with eyes ice gray in the glare of his headlights. Blearily I heard another truck pull up and more boots crunch on dirt and pavement.
“Janet Begay.” Nash’s voice was flat and hard. He didn’t like me. When I first arrived in Magellan, I’d tried to talk to him about Amy McGuire, and he’d shut me down before I’d done more than introduce myself. Amy McGuire had been his fiancée. Jones had hated me before he’d even met me.
He turned on a pinpoint flashlight and trained the light right into my eyes. “You all right?”
“I’m alive,” I croaked.
“You ran into him with your motorcycle.” His voice held no sympathy. “The impact flipped the truck. Am I right?”
“Something hit him. Not me.”
He didn’t believe me. “Can you get up? Do you need the paramedics?”
“I think I’m okay.”
Nash didn’t believe that either. A woman in a black coverall came over at his signal, and she helped me stand. Nash abandoned me while the woman got me to the back of a paramedics truck and cleaned the blood off my hands. She checked me over, took my blood pressure, felt my limbs for breaks, asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said no but asked her for a lift into town, my motorcycle wheel bent like it was. She agreed but said she had to wait for the sheriff’s okay.
I felt hollow inside. Fremont was dead in that truck. Dead because a skinwalker sent by my evil goddess mother had missed me and hit him.
Nash Jones and his deputies surveyed the accident and started cutting the body out of the truck. I sat there sick and miserable. The storm was dying, leaving me drained and sick as usual. I really wanted some coffee. Or a stiff drink. I was a lightweight drunk, so I never drank much, but tonight I’d make an exception.
Nash returned and beckoned with a curt gesture. “Begay. Come with me.”
Probably the only reason he didn’t manhandle me was because the paramedics woman might get mad at him. Nash Jones had made it clear as soon as I arrived in Magellan that he resented the hell out of my presence and the fact that Chief McGuire had asked me here. Nash had never been officially charged regarding Amy’s disappearance, but he’d been questioned as a suspect, and the talk on the street was that no one knew for sure. The things Chief McGuire had told me about Sheriff Jones were . . . interesting.
Nash didn’t touch me, but he made me hobble in front of him to his SUV. He opened the back door. “Get in.”
“Why? The nice lady with the blood pressure cuff is giving me a ride home.”
“I’m taking you to the sheriff’s office. For reckless driving, possible manslaughter.”
“You are kidding, aren’t you?”
“I don’t kid.”
Jones could glare. He had gray eyes that could turn on you with the intensity of a supernova, black hair cut in the military style he’d brought back from his army time in Iraq, and a hard, handsome face. I’d seen women in Magellan and Flat Mesa turn their heads to watch him go by, his looks marred only by a scar on his upper lip.
“There’s something out there,” I said. “It hit Fremont’s truck, hard enough to flip it. It ran off, but the storm’s dying, and it could come back anytime. It can tear this SUV apart like a paper bag if it wants to. Skinwalkers are frigging strong.”
He answered me with a flat stare. Nash Jones was an Unbeliever, one of those people who didn’t buy the fact that Magellan was built near a mystical confluence of vortexes, where the paranormal was normal. He’d grown up here but derided those who made money from the tourists who flocked to Hopi County in pursuit of the supernatural.
“Get in before I throw your ass in.”
“Were you like this in the army? Not believing anyone who warned you of danger?”
“There I was with trained men. You’re a Navajo girl from a sheep farm. Get in the damn truck.”
“It killed Fremont, easy as anything.” I was close to hysterical tears. I liked gossipy, quirky Fremont.
“It’s not Fremont.”
I looked at him in shock. “What?”
“It’s his assistant. Charlie Jones.”
I’d seen Charlie helping Fremont work on my hotel’s plumbing, a quiet, kind of scruffy kid in his late teens who’d kept to himself. I’d known his first name was Charlie, but that was about it.
“Jones?” I repeated.
“My fourth cousin.”
“Oh, Nash, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Nash gripped me under the elbow and all but threw me into the backseat. “Stay there.”
He slammed the door, clicked a remote, and the locks engaged. As I suspected, the windows wouldn’t roll down for the prisoner in the back, and a black grill separated back from front, with another one blocking me from the storage space to the rear. I decided to be thankful that Nash hadn’t handcuffed me.
I slumped down in the seat, but I knew I couldn’t hide. If the skinwalker wanted to find me again, it would. I didn’t sense it nearby, though. The flashing emergency lights and activity might be keeping it away. Skinwalkers didn’t like light, noise, crowds. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t rise out of the desert and attack again when Nash drove me away.
I also worried about my bike. Would Nash leave it by the side of the road like a mangled toy? I could imagine him doing that, sending impound to retrieve it when he felt like it.
I didn’t have much in the way of possessions, feeling freer without them, but that Harley was important to me. I’d ridden her across this country and down into Mexico, first on my own, then with Mick, then alone again, when I’d finally left him five years ago.
The bike represented my means of escape. No matter how many roots I put down or how much trouble I got into, I could always throw a change of clothes into my saddlebags, swing my leg over my Harley, and disappear into the night.
I saw the poor thing in the flicker of police flares, the wheel bent, the handlebars sticking up forlornly. It was a machine, a piece of metal, I told myself, but it was like looking at the twisted body of my own child.
When Nash finally opened the driver’s door, I smelled no stench of skinwalker on the night. I inhaled, tasting the ozone tingle of the storm. I toyed with the idea of snatching the lightning’s power and zapping Nash with it, but that would make me no better than the skinwalker. Hurting for the fun of it. I shuddered.
“Should I consider myself under arrest?” I asked.
Nash slammed the door and put on his seat belt. “Being taken in for questioning.”
“Deputies are impounding it. It’s evidence.”
“Damn you, Jones, I didn’t run into that truck.”
“Save it.” He put the SUV in gear and pulled out past the flipped pickup as the deputies lifted my Harley and tossed carelessly it into the back of their truck.
Nash didn’t turn on his emergency lights, but he gunned the SUV and roared down the highway. Ten miles along, the road ended in a T-intersection, another narrow highway heading north to Flat Mesa, the other south to Magellan. My hotel stood here, at the Crossroads, a dark, forlorn square against the darker sky. The Crossroads Bar, which shared a parking lot with the hotel, was lit and swarming with people.
I gazed longingly at the hotel, picturing my bedroom in the back with its waiting bed and bathroom, even if the water didn’t work yet. That hotel was my haven, my defiance if you like.
Nash turned left, passing the hotel without stopping, and drove north toward Flat Mesa.
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