Sylvie hit the ground running and didn’t look back.
Her hiding place behind the dumpster had been compromised. Just two minutes before, she’d been wheezing against the filthy, rust-stained metal, trying to listen for footfalls over the sound of her jackhammer heart. She’d been allowing herself a scant few seconds of respite, praying like she’d never prayed before that she’d lost them in city traffic. That they’d gotten delayed at intersections and turned around and couldn’t follow her random, panicked escape between buildings, cars, late-morning commuters. They knew the city far better than she, but Sylvie was tiny, a mere one-hundred pounds of five-foot girl. She could weasel into places even the tall, skinny, crow-like guy couldn’t fit. Slip through breeched chain-link fences and cracked windows and behind wall-pressed dumpsters.
In between breaths, she checked her pistol. Two rounds left. Two shiny torpedoes, blessed and varnished in silver. The tricks of her trade. Not that they’d wound her pursuers any more than a mundane bullet because, dammit, witches were people. Just people. People who mucked about in business they had no right to, even the ones who worked white magicks. It was such a shit-slicked roll downhill when white witches turned gray turned…black? No – red. Red as the blood they stole and cradled in their cursed chalices and smeared on their faces to summon things. Some of her best friends here in town were witches but deep inside she hated them all. She had to.
Sylvie willed her heart to settle, wiped palms on jeans to dry the moisture. It would suck hind titty if she lost her last weapon due to an unsightly perspiration problem. She didn’t hear footfalls anywhere close to the alley. The omnipresent ambient noise of traffic and someone’s car radio caterwauling much too loudly for this time of the morning but…did she really give them the slip? Did she manage to take a right turn when they took a left and the sounds of the city disguised her gale-force panting?
Sylvie made the Sign of the Cross and slowly, so slowly, peeked around the edge of the dumpster. The air stank of rotten food and urine and metal but if she could keep her lunch down through the foul perfume of rotting human flesh, this funk was nothing.
A charm bracelet, containing the symbols of every major religion and even some of the less-than-major ones, jingled down her wrist. She held her breath. A drop of sweat tickled the tip of her nose, and Sylvie took one step out for a better view of the alley’s mouth. There was a sound overhead.
The shorter of the two, the one with the curly brown hair that vaguely disguised a graphic scar bisecting his scalp, had somehow made it to the rooftops. Stupid fire-escapes…they snaked up the side of every turn-of-the-century building in San Francisco. She should’ve suspected when she didn’t hear them in hot pursuit.
A shrill whistle split the sky, reverberating off the brick walls. It sent her heart into a frantic tarantella and dropped the bottom out of her stomach.
“JACK.” That was all ScarHead shouted, pointing directly downwards. Sylvie thought she saw him grin, the Frankensteined little fucker. She probably would’ve found him attractive—dark hair and eyes, gypsy-olive skin—if not for the scar. Oh, and that pesky, malignant witchcraft thing.
And so her hiding place behind the dumpster had been compromised.
Sylvie swore under her breath and hit the ground running, never looking back. She rocketed from the alley to the congested sidewalk and saw the other guy, the tall one, in her peripheral vision, half a head above the rest of the populace, half a block away. And he saw her.
Momentum pushed her through the work-a-day lemmings and she dodged under elbows and steaming cups of Starbucks, some of them grousing their objections, but Sylvie kept her head and her gun down. Down the downward sloping streets, steep enough to threaten her footing. She nearly missed a turn, propelling herself into the broad side of a MUNI bus but one outstretched palm, slapped flat to the huge vehicle, bounced her out of traffic and back into the teeming masses. Her lungs ached with each draw of air and every pounding step.
“Hey, girl, watch where you’re –”
“Bitch, don’t run into –”
Sylvie slipped herself into a crush of pedestrians crossing the intersection and hunkered low, lost among their business suits and tourist t-shirts. She was good at invisibility, being petite. They couldn’t hit what they couldn’t see.
She rode the crowd until it began to fragment, people splitting off to work, shopping, wherever. The city blew by in a blur as she bolted again, gun hidden by the overhanging sleeve of a black hoodie. The air smelled distinctly different here, less vehicular and more briny. Dank, like stale seawater and wet animal. She hadn’t the luxury to ponder the change except to note enormous blue and white flags announcing ‘Pier 39’. Fisherman’s Wharf. The city had terminated into the world-famous vacationists’ Mecca. Which meant she was stuck, quite possibly, at a dead end. Or faced with swimming. Slyvie was a house cat when it came to swimming. Pissy and hating it. Fine, maybe she did have occasion to ponder her locale after all.
Humanity was sparser here, it being early for the sightseeing trade. Thinned, but not disappeared altogether. Behind the main street of storefront — nautical-themed bars, greasy burger joints, crap-filled knick-knack shops — Sylvie found a labyrinth of other stores catering to the city’s many visitors. Pick-a-pearl kiosks, a game arcade, finer dining, all peppering an expansive boardwalk in an illogical tangle that would require a map or GPS to navigate. About time. This was her sort of terrain. She risked a pause, a quick scan of her surroundings, didn’t see Heckle and Jeckle and took off like a rat in the sewers.
Most of the stores weren’t staffed yet but food service had to prepare earlier in the day than retail. There would be an employee entrance open somewhere, a delivery of produce forcing doors ajar. If she could just locate the passageways behind the public facades, she’d be brilliantly lost to any pursuit. Slipped through their fingers, off the grid. Unless…there were spells….
NO, can’t think that way. Keep your head in the game, Sylvie. She tried door after door, each rattling and unyielding, before slipping into a Welcome Center where there were far too many curious eyes to vanish into an office or a closet. However there was always the Ladies Room. She smoothed her hair, smiled, and excused herself.
The bathroom was a bathroom like any other, and empty except for Sylvie herself. One tiny window up high for ventilation, several stalls, faux lemony scent. She set the gun on the edge of a sink and splashed her face with cold water, mentally ticking through options as she watched her own reflection drip. Two days ago she’d severed her beloved sable hair to become more unrecognizable; what remained was a boyish mop that made her ears stick out. And it was all for naught. A waste. They found her, regardless. Okay, okay, stop it. Focus. Get help.
There were only those noisy, high-pressure air dryers in the bathroom so she used her sleeves as towels. Once dried, she pulled a cell phone from her front pocket and hit buttons from memory.
“Come on come on come on,” chanted, as if it would help. It didn’t. The tinny, recorded herald of voicemail brought stinging water to her eyes and a silent expletive to her lips. Wait for the beep; you know what to do. “Eddie. I’ve been made. Blown. You gotta send help. Fisherman’s Wharf. Hurry, please…hurry.” Sylvie disconnected, frowning at the phone, swiping at her leaking eyes. There had to be someone else to call.
She was on the verge of ‘911’ when voices were raised beyond the bathroom door. They didn’t disturb Sylvie as much as the subsequent squeals and thumps and slushy noises that sounded far too viscous to be mere pamphlet-shuffling.
“Ohmygod, sir, you can’t-” Shush, whimper, dull thud. Apparently, he could. Sylvie retrieved her gun. She held her breath to hear every single sound, like she did when her car was dying. She would turn off the radio and hold her breath to hear every single sound it made. Didn’t keep the car from giving up the ghost but at least Sylvie was prepared when it sputtered to a dead stop on some side-street in Oakland. It wasn’t actually her car anyway. She ‘borrowed’ it from some neo-hippie in the Haight who didn’t believe in locking the doors. Damn thing reeked of weed, no matter how many scented trees she hung from the rearview mirror.
It got very quiet beyond the bathroom. She didn’t dare call ‘911’ now. There was only the whispering hum of central air conditioning and Sylvie’s own pulse in her ears. Then a phone rang somewhere in the building. Rang and rang and rang. Sylvie frantically turned off her ring tone and stuffed the cell back in a pocket. Looking at the lone window in the bathroom, it was clear she was too short to pull herself up and out the portal; she wasn’t sure it even truly opened more than a token crack.
Slow, silent breaths. If her heart didn’t stop racing she wouldn’t have to worry about discovery. She would just have a fucking heart attack. Beneath the door, a shadow blocked out the light and Sylvie stopped breathing again.
Five minutes passes. Felt like five-hundred. Five-million. Whispers. And the door crept open an inch.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are…” a voice sing-songed. Oh yeah, that was clever. Har-dee-har. What, did he get that from the Master Villains’ Handbook of Popular Quotations or some such crap?
The door continued to ease open. It was the taller of the two men. He curled gaunt fingers around the edge and a lank tuft of black hair preceded him into the bathroom. His face came into view, all scary-thin with a nose as long and narrow and straight as a heron’s beak. And though she couldn’t tell what color his eyes were, she knew they were light. Sylvie remembered him now. So this was Jack. She’s seen him once before, at a bar by Eddie’s place. His angularity and mildly charming smile made a vague impression. He might’ve bought her a drink, chatted her up. Damn it, she was getting sloppy. He couldn’t see Sylvie now, though. She was behind him, pressed flat to the tile wall beside the door’s hinges. The shatter-proof bathroom mirror was angled such that it reflected the three toilets, not Sylvie. Small favors.
She could conceivably be hiding in any of the stalls, standing on a commode, pretending the door ajar meant the cubby was empty.
“Come on, Sylvie. I know you’re here. I can smell you. Reminds me of –”
he took a breath, smacking his lips as though tasting the air, “– rainbows and unicorns, lollipops and pussy. Is it that time of month, Sylvie? I think it is.”
He was trying to bait her, get her rattled enough to fumble or gasp or give herself away. Like that was gonna happen. Besides, the only thing he could possibly smell was the cloying disinfectant stink of toilet bowl cakes. She wished he’d quit using her name, though. He shouldn’t know her name; she was certain she’d covered her trail better than that.
Having long since released the gun’s safety catch, Sylvie was silently waiting for a clean shot, right through the back of his mangy head because one shot was all she got. Two bullets, one chance. Her arm was extended and leveled, shivering with fatigue and the weight of the gun, but six more inches and he’d be clear of the door. Half a foot and Jack’s brains would be splattered all over the white porcelain sinks.
It should’ve been easy. She was a good shot; he was a close target. But something went wrong. Maybe he saw her reflection in a shiny faucet. Maybe the merest shush of fabric caught his ear. Maybe the Good Guys didn’t always ride off into the sunset. Jack spun around, his tattered gray overcoat whirling like a great wing. Sylvie twitched a finger and the gun reported, deafening as the bang bounced off every hard surface of the bathroom. Her gaze never left her target and for just a heartbeat, she could swear his eyes weren’t light anymore. Quite the contrary, they glittered mean and oily black, like some demented Raggedy Andy doll, ebony buttons where the eyes should’ve been.
Sylvie’s reflexes stuttered as she tried to make sense of what the hell was going on. Jack jerked a hand up in defense and the bullet behaved as though it’d hit an invisible brick. It pinged off in a sharp right that sent the projectile into one of the toilets.
She had never, in all her years, seen a witch do that. Poltergeists could move items in such a fashion, whereas witches sacrificed neighborhood cats and cast spells to make a killing on the stock market, right? Was this what possession looked like? Sylvie had no clue. She’d heard tell of ghosts getting inside people and making them do automatic drawings and leak ectoplasm but this…this was far beyond her scope.
She fired again, her last precious bullet, but the creature that was Jack got in her face, shoving her arm up so that the shot embedded in the ceiling. His fingers were bony vices around her wrist and he kept pulling on her arm, Sylvie’s shoulder giving and trying to dislocate. She bit off a cry, fixing him with a furious glare in defiance of her own terror.
His eyes—they were pale gray.
“Drop the fucking gun, Sylvie, and I won’t snap your pretty little arm like a twig, ‘kay?” Jack, mere inches from Sylvie’s nose, hissed through a bared grin.
He may have thought he had the upper hand until Sylvie’s knee rocketed up and rammed his package into his intestines. Jack released her in a pain-shot hurry. He doubled over with a strangled whine, verging on a retch. All it took to topple him at that point was a shove to the top of his head. He fell back, unable or unwilling to straighten, and Sylvie flung open the bathroom door with her good arm. The other was throbbing and nearly useless.
As she threw herself out into the Welcome Center, her front foot skidded, squeaking on the tile through something wet and red and spurting from the desk clerk’s sliced throat. The slip knocked Sylvie into a wall and set her injured shoulder on fire. Her hand was weak with pins-and-needles; the gun slid from her grip into the blood and she was forced to leave the weapon behind. It was out of bullets anyway.
A desperate survey of the room revealed several unfortunate circumstances. Two more bleeding bodies, one whose hands were still ineffectually clawing at the floor, a security camera in the east corner of the ceiling, and a stunned family of five gawking at the carnage directly in front of the main entrance. Welcome to San Francisco, Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland, Ohio.
The one fortunate event was finding a rear exit that lead into an open-air corridor between several businesses. Sylvie ran clumsily, cradling her aching arm and doing her level best not to bank into another wall. Eventually she broke free into daylight, squinting, briefly blinded. She heard distant sirens and not-so-distant gulls. She had to keep moving, keep putting space between herself and Busted Nuts. She wasn’t in the clear yet, not even a little. Before continuing, she scuffed her sneakers on the ground, drying them of any remaining, telltale red.
She headed off, eyes continually scanning for signs of pursuit or police. She honestly wasn’t sure how many people (to use the term loosely) were after her, and as much as she’d love to bring the cops into this, her past wasn’t exactly squeaky clean. There were more than a few questions she really didn’t want to answer. Um, officer…about that car in Oakland. And the gun at the Wharf, well, uh… Yeah, never mind.
Sylvie paused at a public drinking fountain. Her throat felt wind-burnt, internally sore in dry patches that mirrored the dull throb in her lungs every time she inhaled. Vacating adrenaline left her shaky. Her forehead was clammy under the cold bay wind. Another quick glance around the area and she assessed she was safe for the next three minutes. She pulled her cell phone out of the pocket of her hoodie, thumbed through the saved numbers, hit a button and waited.
“Dammit, isn’t anybody home these days?!” She waited a few more seconds. “Bobby. Hey, it’s me. Sylvie. I…I know I haven’t called in ages, I’m sorry, but I don’t know who else to talk to. I think I’m in deep. Long story. I’m in San Francisco. It’s witches, I think. Look, if you don’t hear from me tonight –” Sylvie swallowed, wincing as she shifted her bad arm “ – if you don’t hear from me tonight, send someone to the Red Victorian Inn. I’m registered under –” Sylvie heard heavy footfalls and upon instinct, looked up to find the source. And the source was Jack. How the hell he found her, she had no idea but it made her nauseous with dread. “Shit. Bobby. Send someone.”
Sylvie bolted like a rabbit, struggling to get the hand of her injured arm secured in her hoodie pocket to keep the limb from jostling. Her fingers grazed something foreign. Something small and cool, felt like a coin. With great effort, because running and cringing and focusing all at once was no easy feat, Sylvie pulled out the item and indeed, it was a coin. So old the image and words were nearly worn smooth but she could tell it was foreign and hand-forged. And she hadn’t put it there herself. That was how he found her. It had to be ensorcelled, some sort of magicked money. She always suspected money was the root of all evil; now, she was certain.
Dodging children that had gathered around an intricately painted carousel, Sylvie dropped the coin and it rolled between the slats of the boardwalk. Jack was still gimping crooked, as well he should be. The Wharf was filling up, day-trippers from all over the world convening for an afternoon of consumerism. And Sylvie was running out of pier.
Morning’s fog had burned off the water but San Francisco liked its rain this time of year. Clouds were still pressing down on the sky, obscuring blue with a menacing, sooty gray. Regardless, a great swell of people were gathering at the very edge of the Wharf, thickly lining almost half a block of it, staring and pointing out over the bay. Sea lions, dozens of them, lounged on floating docks, cheesing for the cameras like local celebrities. Sylvie threaded through the crowd until she was virtually unseen, nestled in the relative safety of humanity. Her shoulder had eased to a stiff, dull twinge but, God, she wished she could just sit down somewhere. Gather her wits about her. Catch her breath. And she prayed someone would call her back.
Sylvie looked down at the phone, which was still clutched in a death-grip. Nothing. It could’ve been a stinkin’ candy bar, for all the good it was. Her stomach complained at the thought of chocolate and caramel, nougat, maybe peanuts. Breakfast had been the last thing on Sylvie’s mind this morning and now she was famished. And thirsty. And some damned tourist was sticking an elbow in her side. Sylvie shifted away from said elbow when the nudge became a sharp jab, and the jab became a bright sting. Sylvie gasped and shot a glare at the source. At the same time, warmth spread down her side.
She was looking at a handsome face, perhaps her own age, early 20’s, eyes large and dark, framed by brown hair that caught auburn in the sun. And a scar that appeared and disappeared as the wind parted the curls. He smiled at Sylvie, and she dropped her phone, pressing a hand to the warmth at her side. The hand came away scarlet. There was a quick scintillation of silver, disappeared into his pocket. He caught her arm, her bad arm, but it just didn’t seem to hurt anymore. Nothing felt real, everything got dull and cobwebby, cold except for the spot at her waist. The boisterous barking of the sea lions grew so very distant. Sylvie wilted, and the world went away.