Read a sample from STRANGE FATES by Marlene Perez

Chapter One

The dank bathroom smelled, the stench thinly disguised by a lonely pine-scented air freshener that had probably been there since the club first opened.

I’d been at the bar nursing a beer since six, waiting for somebody who had information I needed. After I figured out my guy wasn’t going to show, I’d drowned my disappointment with several shots of the Red Dragon’s cheap whiskey, and now I was paying for it.

I started to push open the stall door, but a couple stumbled in, obviously looking for more privacy. The Red Dragon men’s loo wasn’t my idea of a romantic interlude, but whatever rocked their boats. I peered through the crack in the door to make sure they were decent.

The guy, a hipster-looking dude with a supercilious attitude, said something I didn’t catch, but I heard the girl loud and clear.

She was tall and curvy, with ice-blond hair, the rare shade of white blond that nowadays almost always came out of a bottle. Her eyes were probably blue, I speculated.

A glimpse of her heart-shaped face propelled me forward, but I forgot the door in front of me and banged my shin in the process.

“There’s someone in here,” she said.

I took another peek. God, she was gorgeous, but I’d met plenty of gorgeous girls. The spark of mischief in her eyes called to me. I’d bet the last hundred in my wallet that trouble followed her like a cat after cream. I wanted to get to know a girl like that.

Apparently, so did her date. “It’s just some drunk,” the guy said. “He won’t even know we’re here.”

“I changed my mind,” she said. “Let me go.”

The guy smacked his lips a couple of times, which grossed me out no end. It was a good thing my stomach was empty, especially when I heard his sales pitch.

“C’mon, baby,” he said. “You know you want to.” Charming.

The girl pushed him away. “I said no, Brad.”

“And I said yes,” Brad replied.

I stepped out of the stall, unwilling to be witness to Brad’s borderline attempted date rape any longer. Besides, I kind of liked the idea of playing knight errant for a change.

“She’s not interested,” I said. I crossed to the sink, washed my hands, and splashed cold water on my face. There was something about the girl that bothered me, but I couldn’t get a fix on it.

When Brad looked away, the girl kneed him in the groin so hard he fell on the floor, gasping.

Evidently, no knight in shining armor was needed. I liked her even more. I stepped over Brad’s prone form and extended my hand to the girl. “Hi, I’m Nyx.”

She took it and a tingle went through my hand and a few other places. I was wrong. Her eyes were green, not blue. Even better.

“I’m Meadow,” she said. The lilting sound of her voice sent the vibrations through me again.

“Hippie mom?” I asked.

“No, lunatic,” she told me.

It must have been clear I wasn’t following, so she elaborated. “Lunatic mom, not hippie mom. My mom’s way too young to be part of the peace generation. She did go through a grunge phase, though.”

I ignored Brad’s bitching and moaning and concentrated on Meadow. “Wanna get out of here?”

You’d be surprised how many times that line actually has worked, but I wasn’t really counting on it to work on Meadow. Despite the fact that she’d been playing grab-ass with a creep like Brad, she seemed intelligent enough.

She smiled at me. “I don’t think so.”

“Listen, Nyx,” Brad blustered from the floor. “Meadow is mine.”

I raised an eyebrow. “She doesn’t seem to think so.”

“Wanna dance?” She gave me a smile so dazzling that my head spun.

I nodded and grabbed her hand and we exited the bathroom, ignoring Brad as we went.

The music hit my bloodstream as potently as any alcohol. I lost myself to the rhythm as Meadow swayed in front of me. Heads turned to enjoy the view. I couldn’t blame them.

The tap on my shoulder wasn’t completely unexpected. I knew Brad would come looking for us eventually. His hurt pride wouldn’t allow him to slink off, no matter how much the kick to the balls had made him want to.

I took my time turning around. Brad would probably take a swing the minute I did and he didn’t disappoint me. Mortals were so predictable.

I ducked and his fist slammed into the dancer behind me.

Dancer-dude shoved a burly-looking guy, who flew into a couple making out. That guy moved his girlfriend out of the way and shoved the burly guy. Burly guy flew into a group of girls and they shoved him back into the crowd. Burly guy bounced around like the ball in a giant pinball machine. Pretty soon there were punches being thrown wherever I looked. Two girls rolled around on the floor, pulling each other’s hair. That’s when it became a serious bar fight.

I looked around for Meadow but couldn’t see her in the brawling crowd. I finally spotted her as she made her way to the bar, but then I lost sight of her when Brad took another swing at me. That punch connected to my jaw. I bit my tongue hard, and blood spurted into my mouth.

I grinned at him and hit him in the gut. I was no longer a tearstained child, drenched in my mother’s blood. Blood didn’t frighten me any longer. Time had hardened me. I wasn’t just a survivor. I was a fighter. There was a knife hidden in my boot, but I didn’t need it to fight a mortal.

Someone slammed into me and I lost my balance, but I was holding my own. I’d learned to fight a long time ago and I’d learned to fight dirty. Things were going well, too well, it turned out. Someone behind me hit me over the head with what felt like an anvil, but was probably just a barstool. I went limp as the world exploded behind my eyes. I shook it off and tried to stand, but that douche bag Brad put a knife in my heart.

And I’m not exaggerating the excellence of his aim. His blow went straight to my heart. It should have been a killing blow, but instead it felt like my heart was being squeezed by a giant fist. I stood there staring at him like an idiot as my blood dripped onto the floor. My aunts always said that I’d come to a bad end, but that was more of a promise than a prophecy.

“Was she worth dying over?” Brad stood over me. “I guess you’ll never know.” Ah, there it was. Although luck was always on my left shoulder, calamity kept her company on the right.

The world wasn’t any better or any worse today than it was two hundred years ago. Mortals still killed each other in the name of their god, money, or sex.

Some things never changed.

“That hurt,” I finally said, right before I passed out.

I bet you’re wondering what kind of phony asshole I was or if I was crazy or high or both. I have been those things at one time or another, but that was the old me. The new me was one thing and that is truthful. I couldn’t die, no matter how much I wanted to.

When I came to, I heard Meadow and Brad talking—arguing actually. I opened my eyes and saw two of everything, so I closed my eyes while I listened to their conversation.

“We can’t just leave him,” Meadow protested.

“I’m outta here,” Brad said. “My dad will kill me if this hits the papers.”

“I’m staying,” Meadow said.

“Suit yourself,” Brad said. “It’s your life, what you have left of it.”

If I ever saw that Brad guy again, I was going to curse him with an STD he’d never forget. I passed out again.

When I came to again, I was on the floor, but there was a guy taking my pulse.

“I’m an EMT,” he said. I detected a slight slur to his words. He’d been drinking.

“Sure you are,” I said.

“I’m off-duty,” he said. Like I’d let a drunk corpse chaser work on me.

Meadow was kneeling there beside me, but there was only one of her this time. She was holding my other hand.

I sat up and almost gave the EMT a coronary. Brad was gone, which wasn’t surprising. There were a bunch of people standing around me, but they didn’t concern me. Meadow and the EMT had hopefully blocked me from the crowd’s curious eyes—and if not, the dark bar and substantial amounts of alcohol that had been consumed would do the rest.

My jacket was on but my shirt had been ripped open, probably to get to the wound, but I didn’t care about that. My rib cage ached and my jeans were smeared with blood. I touched a hand to my chest to make sure my mother’s chain was there. It was made of such fine silver that most of the time I forgot I even had it on. I relaxed a fraction when I felt its weight, like a breath, light and warm, at the back of my neck.

“Your wound,” the EMT said. “It’s gone.” I’d been skewered like a pig and would have another scar to add to my collection, but he didn’t see that. I’d used a little magic to convince him otherwise.

“My jacket must have taken the worst of it,” I lied quickly.

“Yeah, his motorcycle jacket is practically in tatters,” Meadow said. “But he’s barely scratched.” It hurt to look into her green eyes. I realized what was familiar about her. She looked just like Amalie, but Amalie had been dead for a hundred years. I shook off the feeling of déjà vu.

I liked a girl who knew how to ad-lib. She had to see the gaping hole in my chest. I didn’t have the strength to glamour both of them. I was intrigued by the matter-of-fact way she was handling my near-death. If I were a normal guy, that is. There was no way she could have known about me.

“It’s not a motorcycle jacket,” I replied. “It’s a World War Two fighter pilot jacket.” There were healing amulets sewn into it. I needed the amulets before I passed out from the pain.

“I’ll take him home,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”

“Meadow’s right,” I said. Her momentary lack of recognition of the name confirmed what I’d already suspected. Meadow was definitely not her real name. Probably something she told losers like Brad.

“A scratch?” The EMT was dumbfounded. “But there’s blood all over the floor, all over him, all over everything.”

“Yeah, I bleed a lot,” I said.

“He’s a hemophiliac,” Meadow said. For a minute, I thought she’d oversold it, but the EMT bought it. The crowd dispersed after they all realized there was nothing exciting to see.

I scrambled to my feet and grabbed my jacket. “It’s been fun, but I’ve gotta go.” The sharp pain to my heart reminded me how stupid it had been to make a sudden movement, but I needed to make my exit before the cops got there. Or someone much much worse.

On the way out, I didn’t see any surveillance cameras, which was a relief and another reason I gave holes like the Red Dragon my business.

The street was deserted, but it wouldn’t stay that way long. Bar fights brought the cops, usually with sirens blaring, so I took it as a good sign that it was quiet.

I looked younger than my driver’s license indicated, but that was to throw off the Wyrd Sisters or anyone else they sent looking for me. They’d managed to garner quite a bit of information about me, including the fact that I liked a lager now and then. My current driver’s license said I was twenty-five, but I wasn’t sure it would stand up to official scrutiny.

I’d grabbed a handful of cocktail napkins, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be nearly enough to stem the blood flowing down my chest. Though I’d made it out of the bar without any problems, the girl caught up with me two blocks away.

“Wait up,” she called out. I kept walking, hunched over from the pain.

The original goal of the night was to meet my contact and get wasted, but now I just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. Or Minneapolis. At least long enough to lick my wounds. I’d need every bit of strength for what I had planned. Meadow, or whatever her real name was, stayed close on my heels.

“I don’t know how to say this politely,” I said. “But get lost.” A strange girl who looked like my dead ex? That smelled like trouble.

I kept one hand firmly on my wound and tried not to think about how my blood was slowly soaking a cheap bar napkin. It had started to snow and I blew on my other hand to try to warm it. Minneapolis was cold as Hades, but I didn’t think my aunts would expect me here.

“I know a safe place,” she said, panting a little as she caught up with me. “You’re fast. It took me a few blocks to find you.”

I swayed and stumbled and she grabbed me to help me stay upright. I moved away from her. “I can walk on my own,” I croaked.

“Suit yourself.”

We walked in silence for a moment.

She was so close that our arms brushed and I could smell her fresh citrusy scent. It didn’t seem like her. I had expected her perfume to be something that suggested smooth whiskey and rumpled sheets.

“My car’s this way,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I could trust her, but I was definitely attracted to her. It had been a long time since I’d felt anything that strongly. I shook my head to clear it.

It was the floral barrette that decided it for me. It looked like it belonged on a third-grader. I went along with her, even though my instinct warned me against it. I could pick up my Caddy in the morning. I’d made sure no one would spot it and if anyone tried to touch it, they’d regret it.

“What makes you think I need a safe place to stay?”

“The fact that you only had fifty dollars, no credit card, fake ID,” she replied. She handed me my worn leather wallet.

I shot her a look. “I had a hundred in my wallet, not fifty.”

“I wasn’t going to keep it,” she said, offended. “I wanted to see if Nyx was your real name.”

I hesitated. She was cute, more than cute really, and I barely had enough money on me for a bus ticket out of there.

“So what’s your real name?” I asked.

“What gave it away?”

I’d surprised her. Good. “You aren’t as clever as you think you are,” I said. What gave it away was that she waited a beat too long before she answered to Meadow. “What’s the con?”

“It’s not a con,” she replied. “I’ll explain in the car.”

The distant wail of sirens made my decision easy. The scenery would be better with Meadow than where the cops would take me. I seriously doubted I’d find out her real name. I didn’t really blame her. Names had power.

For instance, Nyx wasn’t my real name, either, but I had taken it after the last time Gaston had found me, and I’d grown fond of it. I’d found myself reaching for that name more than any other, giving it out as easily as normal people did their given names. Regular Joes handed out their true names like verbal party favors instead of what they really were, secrets they should guard with their lives.

We came alongside a cherry-red Lexus with a license plate that read ZOOM-ZMM.

Meadow opened the passenger door and gestured for me to get in. I slid in cautiously.

“I don’t give people phony names,” I told her. A lie, but she didn’t have to know that. “You were Meadow earlier. What’s your story?”

She shrugged. “My name is Elizabeth. My real name.” She looked me up and down. “You should see a doctor.”

“No doctors,” I said. She didn’t seem surprised. Was she a poor little rich girl who picked up criminals for kicks? Not that I was a criminal, but I wasn’t the kind of boy you brought home to meet the folks, either.

“I’ll take you to the cottage.” She started the car and pulled out without bothering to look in the mirror. I winced, but it didn’t slow her down. She gripped the wheel tightly, and I noticed her long slender fingers had nails that were bitten to the quick.

She drove without fear, taking the turns on the icy road with cavalier abandon. I didn’t find it appealing, especially after she took a speed bump at fifty and my head went all fuzzy.

“Elizabeth, do you mind slowing down?” I said. I didn’t believe that she’d given me her real name this time, either, but I liked the name Elizabeth.

She didn’t answer, but she did slow down. When she turned a corner, though, jarring pain radiated out from my heart to my head. That was the last thing I remembered before I passed out.

Copyright © 2013 by Marlene Perez