The whole band seemed to be feeling the lack of Tuesday’s practice. They hadn’t engaged in their usual conversation beforehand, just jumping in to start playing as soon as everyone was there. Sierra was glad of it. Diving right into the music let her work out a lot of her stress and anxiety about everything going on, and it relaxed her enough that she didn’t dread telling her friends about her job. Once practice wrapped up, everyone lingered over beers, finally taking the time to catch up with each other. “You seem to be enjoying your new shiny,” Cammy observed, leaning her head on Sierra’s shoulder. “You were positively dour when you got here, but now you’re smiling again.”
Sierra heaved a sigh. “Well, the mood wasn’t without reason, I’m afraid. I got laid off this week.”
“What?!” The cry seemed to come from everyone at once. They sat up, looking at her with expressions ranging from startled to pitying. All except Cammy, who frowned in thought and then shrugged. “Well, you never really liked that job, after all. Good severance package at least?”
“Not terrible,” Sierra acknowledged. “I was there long enough, they gave me six months, insurance included. It should be enough time to figure something else out.”
“Got any leads?” Bobby asked, settling back against the couch. His brow was furrowed, as if he’d been presented with an enticing challenge. “I might be able to pull some strings at the book store. Word is they’re thinking about letting me hire an assistant manager. Though, it might be weird for us to work together.”
“Retail? Sierra?” Intira snorted and shook her head. “You should renew your certification. Every school in this town needs teachers. Especially teachers with their Master’s.”
Elia looked at Intira in surprise, then at Sierra. “I had not realized you taught.”
“I didn’t, really, after my required TA hours. My degree is in Music Education,” Sierra explained, “but there weren’t any open positions anywhere I was looking when I graduated and I didn’t want to move just for work. To be honest, I’m not really sure it’s for me.” This last was said to Intira.
“You could always try subbing to dip your toes into the water,” she suggested. “Might let you figure it out for sure.”
“Oh, hush,” Cammy said, waving her off and arching a brow. “I doubt Sierra wants to think about any of that just now. Let’s let her enjoy at least a brief respite before we start planning her future for her.” She winked at Sierra, who nodded back in relief, then glanced around at the group. “I know we don’t have a gig this weekend, but maybe we should get together anyway? Do something fun?”
“Aunt Agnes was talking about whipping up some chili for the game Sunday afternoon. You should all come over.”
“Oh, hell yes!” Intira said, her eyes lighting up. “I am so there for Agnes’ chili. Want me to bring a batch of wings?”
Cammy pursed her lips. “My stomach is turning over at the mere thought of all that grease,” she sighed. “I’ll bring some vegetables so we can stave off the heart attacks for at least a few more years.”
“Jackie thanks you,” Bobby said, saluting her with his bottle. “She’s been on a health food kick lately. Something to do with her P.E. classes?” He raised an accusing eyebrow at Intira.
“Don’t look at me,” she said, throwing a bottle cap at him. “I’m not your daughter’s P.E. teacher. I can’t help it if the state wants us to stress eating healthy along with getting enough exercise.” Shrugging, she glanced over at Sierra. “Guess that means you’re bringing the beer, sweetie.”
“I–” Sierra started.
“Perfect!” Bobby interrupted. He glanced at Elia. “You’re coming too, right? You and Cammy can commiserate over how ridiculous American football is.”
“Yeah!” Intira agreed, “Sierra says you’re a whiz in the kitchen. Maybe you can bring a snack somewhere in between heart attack and rabbit food.”
Elia looked touched at the invitation. He glanced at Sierra and she shrugged. They were both climbing the walls of the apartment being cooped up all the time. Surely, a football game at a friend’s house would be safe enough?
A knock sounded at the door. Intira’s eyebrows drew down. “Who the hell is that?” she wondered aloud, getting up to see. She opened the door, but no one was there. “Hey!” she yelled into the darkness, “If this is some sort prank, it’s not funny!” She took a step outside, peering around, disappearing from her friends’ view. They could hear her muttering under her breath, and then she let out a loud yelp. Everyone jumped to their feet in surprise, but before they could get to the door, Intira was pushed through it by a burly woman holding her arm twisted behind her back. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to subdue Intira, but the gun the woman held wedged under her chin certainly seemed to do the trick.
For a moment, the garage was filled with dead silence as everyone stared at the intruder. Then Elia let out a muffled curse and her eyes snapped to him. Sierra gasped, recognizing the woman from Elia’s description of Bobbi Leigh’s hunters. A slow, feral grin spread across the hunter’s face. “Found you, cat-boy. Come with me, nice and easy, and none of your friends need to get hurt.”
Elia’s eyes narrowed, and Sierra reached out, gripping his arm in fear. His hands clenched and he glanced around the room. Sierra thought he was trying to decide whether he should shift or not.
The woman gave Intira’s arm a yank, drawing out a startled groan. “Don’t try anything funny. Bobbi Leigh told us to do this quietly, but we’ll kill them all if we have to.”
Beside her, Cammy sucked in a breath of surprise. Sierra couldn’t blame her. While the woman was speaking, half a dozen others had slipped in the door behind her.
They were outnumbered.
“Bloody hell,” Cammy muttered under her breath. Her jaw hardened, then her expression softened into an unassuming smile and she took a step forward, hands spread out in a gesture of peace. Sierra’s heart leapt in her throat. “Look,” Cammy said, taking another slow step toward the intruders, “this really all seems rather unnecessary, doesn’t it? Whatever it is you want with our friend, I’m sure there’s no need for violence.”
Sierra exchanged a panicked look with Bobby. Is she really trying to sweet talk our way out of this? The woman holding Intira shifted her attention from Elia to Cammy and Sierra took advantage of her distraction to move herself between Elia and Bobbi Leigh’s people. The woman lowered her gun a hair, and eyed Cammy. “That’s on the boy,” she said. “We don’t have to get violent unless he refuses to come with us. Trust me, it’s for the best. Nice folks like yourselves, you don’t wanna be messed up with what he’s gotten into.”
Elia tried to step around Sierra, and she tightened the grip she still had on his shoulder. She was not about to let him do something foolish like sacrifice himself. She just needed to give him a clear shot to the door. He could run, shift forms, and find somewhere to hide. She bit her lip, looking over the group. The woman holding Intira was the only one who looked armed, but aside from the hunter, she had no way of knowing what they could do. They were sure to have magic at their disposal. Dios, why hadn’t she grilled Elia about the local gang like she had about Orsino’s wolves? She needed a way to distract them, get them to move. But how? She had to buy time to figure something out.
“Look, just put the gun down and let her go,” she said. “We can talk this out.”
“We don’t need to open a dialogue,” the woman sneered. “We just need the boy to come with us.”
“I don’t think that’s really an option,” Cammy observed in a flippant tone. The look in her eyes was anything but. “Also, if you want a gun to be a real threat, shouldn’t you take the safety off?”
The woman frowned and glanced down to look at the gun in her hand.
“Ha!” That was all the opening that Intira needed. She elbowed the woman in the gut with her free arm and wrenched herself loose, wheeling around and planting a roundhouse kick into her stomach, knocking her into two of her companions, who stumbled back under her weight. She dropped the gun, and when another of the intruders stooped forward to snatch it up, Intira stomped down on his wrist as hard as she could. She picked up the gun and aimed it at the remaining three intruders.
“Safety’s still on,” one of them snarled, advancing on her. Cammy stepped in front of him and slugged him in the jaw, then kneed him in the groin, pushing him back on top of his friend that was writhing on the floor.
“That’s easily fixed,” Intira said, moving to switch it off. “Son of a–Cammy! The safety wasn’t on! What the hell?”
Cammy ducked an attempted punch from yet another attacker. “Come on, you know me. How am I supposed to bloody tell if a gun’s safety is on? I figured she’d at least pause to check, which she did.”
“Oh my god, you so owe me,” Intira cried, sliding the gun across the floor to the other side of the room, out of everyone’s reach. She ran around Cammy to help Bobby as he wrestled with the last of the intruders, flailing out with his fists and feet. While this method was working to keep the attacker at bay, he hadn’t managed to land any actual hits. Sierra winced as he took a glancing blow to the shoulder.
She watched in horror as her friends grappled with Bobbi Leigh’s people. She still had a grip on Elia’s arm, and his face was a picture of absolute misery. He wanted to fight. But she knew he didn’t stand a chance against these people. She was pretty sure the only reason they weren’t all dead yet was because no one had been expecting this kind of resistance from a bunch of mundanes. They’d caught the gang by surprise, but they were rallying. Even now, the leader was getting back to her feet, the two she’d knocked over helping her up, and the man Cammy had taken out was already up again, glaring at her with murderous intent as she fended off a tall woman who was proving harder to knock down.
But the path to the door was open.
“Elia!” she breathed, pulling him close. Keeping her voice low, she said, “You have to lead them away!”
“I don’t know if I can outrun them,” he admitted, whispering too, “even if I change.”
“I don’t think you have to. Remember the bulldozers we saw a few houses down last week? The neighbors are putting in a pool.”
He frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Get them to follow you across the backyards. They won’t be expecting the giant hole in the ground. If you can trick them into falling in, it might buy us enough time to get out of here.”
Elia gave her a determined nod. Without another word, he began to shimmer, shifting shape. He let out a loud yowl and tore off through the door, running right over the man with the broken wrist, who was still curled up on the floor.
“Damn it, there he goes!” the leader yelled. “Forget the mundanes! Get the were!”
They all took off after Elia and a heavy silence fell, interrupted only by everyone’s heavy breathing and the moans of the attacker that was left behind.
Intira pushed a lock of hair behind her ear and turned a wide-eyed stare on her. “What the actual fuck, Sierra?”
“Um.” Sierra’s gaze swung around between her friends, her look apologetic. “Okay. So. Elia might not actually be one of Mamá’s students.”
“That was Pequeño,” Bobby panted, eyes wide. “You said he ran away. Did Elia just turn into your cat?”
“Funny story, that,” Sierra said, taking a deep breath and trying to figure out how to explain.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fascinating,” Cammy drawled, staring out the door with her lips pursed. “Why’d you tell him to run?”
“To buy us time,” Sierra said, bending down to gather up Elia’s clothes and glasses, left behind when he shifted. “I told him to get them to chase him into the MacGregors’ yard.”
“The MacGre–the pool!” Intira let out a wicked laugh. “Oh, good one. If he gets them to fall in–that hole’s nothing but mud after all the rain we had last night. They’ll have a hell of a time climbing out.”
“Let’s hope so,” Cammy said. She looked around, walking over to the remaining attacker and kneeling down beside him. He’d gone quiet. She rested a hand on his shoulder and tipped up his chin. “He’s passed out,” she said.
“Ugh, good.” Intira said. “Let’s get him out of my place,” she joined Cammy and grabbed him beneath the arms, dragging him out into the driveway, where she dropped him without ceremony.
“We need to be ready to go as soon as Elia comes back,” Cammy said, staring off in the direction he’d run.
“Yeah, but where?” Bobby asked. “If they found him and Sierra here, they probably know where the rest of us live.” He looked worried about that, and Sierra felt her stomach drop. Oh Dios, they wouldn’t hurt Jackie or Agnes, would they?
“They don’t care about you guys,” she said, trying to sound confident. “They just want him. I’ll take him when he gets back, we’ll figure out somewhere to hide. You don’t have to be involved in this.”
“Seems like we already are, love,” Cammy said. Bobby and Intira nodded their agreement. “Why don’t you lock up, Intira? I think I know where we can go.”
Sierra wanted to argue, to tell her that she and Elia could handle this on their own, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She looked around at her friends and saw only determination on their faces. “Gracias,” she whispered.
Cammy gave her a tight hug. “Here,” she said, holding out her car keys to Intira. “You drive my car. I’ll ride with Sierra. You can follow us.”
“I don’t want to say,” Cammy shook her head, “or text it, unless we get separated. Don’t want to risk tipping these people off as to where we’re going.” She glanced around, her gaze falling on Bobby. “What is it?”
He stood in front of an SUV parked at the end of the drive. Their attackers’ vehicle, Sierra guessed. “I have an idea,” he said. Looking at Intira, he asked, “Can I borrow a flashlight?” Then, to Sierra, “You still keep that pocketknife in your glove box?” Sierra and Intira exchanged a glance, then each shrugged and hurried to get the requested items. Bobby took them and slipped under the SUV. Sierra watched the light bounce around beneath the vehicle and after a few seconds heard Bobby mutter, “Gotcha!” He scooted back out and grinned at them.
“Why do you smell like petrol?” Cammy asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Nicked the gas line,” he explained.
“I don’t want them stranded here!” Intira objected, glancing at her darkened house.
“They shouldn’t be,” Bobby promised. “Won’t start leaking until they get going on the road. Depends on how full the tank is, but they’ll get a few miles away before the gas runs out.”
“Which will leave them right in the middle of nowhere,” Sierra said, understanding. Intira lived several miles outside of Bowieville proper, her neighborhood was surrounded on all sides by ranches.
“Clever,” Cammy said.
Bobby shrugged. “Should buy us a little time to get out of dodge. Assuming Elia gets back soon.”
“Speak of the devil,” Intira said as a high-pitched meow sounded.
Elia emerged from the darkness and joined them in the small pool of brightness cast by the light over the garage door. He was muddy, but whole. Sierra breathed a sigh of relief. He ran straight to her and reached up, paws on her knees, batting at the clothes hanging from her hands. “Oh, right.” She glanced at the others. “Um, could you guys turn around for a sec?”
“Oh!” Intira blushed and wheeled around, Cammy and Bobby following suit.
Sierra set the clothes on the ground and turned as well. She heard the soft rustling of clothes and only turned back when he asked, “What now?”
“Did they fall for your trick?” Cammy asked.
Elia nodded. “Stumbled right into the hole.” He glanced at Sierra. “It sounded like one of the stregone can manipulate earth, though. We don’t have long before they get out.”
“Stre-what-now?” Intira asked.
“We can get answers later,” Cammy said, ushering them to the cars. Bobby climbed into Cammy’s car beside Intira, since he’d ridden to practice with Cammy in the first place.
Elia nodded and started to follow Sierra, then stopped when he saw the man sprawled out on the pavement. “We should bring him,” he said.
“That is so not a good idea,” Sierra said.
“I’m serious, Sierra.” Elia fixed her with a hard look. “He can tell us how they found us, and how much Bobbi Leigh knows. It might help prevent another run-in.” His eyes flicked toward the others and he lowered his voice, “We can find out if it’s safe for them to go home.”
Sierra relented. “Fine. Put him in the trunk.” She fished out her keys and popped it open, helping Elia heave the man inside. He let out a low moan as they jostled him, but did not wake.
Cammy was already in the front passenger seat. Sierra got in and started the car while Elia settled in the back. “Head into town,” Cammy instructed. “But go left when we get to FM 1137.”
Sierra nodded and pulled out of the driveway, navigating around the SUV. Intira was right behind her. She had to resist the urge to gun the gas when she glanced in the rear view mirror and saw Bobbi Leigh’s people running toward the house. “Let’s hope Bobby’s idea works,” she muttered, going as fast as she could without losing their friends. She kept an eye on the road behind them, but there was no sign of the SUV. She noticed Cammy watching Elia with narrowed eyes in the mirror. “Don’t,” she said in a low voice.
“Don’t blame him. It’s not his fault.”
Cammy didn’t bother trying to stay quiet. “Those people were after him, Sierra. And neither one of you seemed very surprised to see them.” She turned around in her seat, addressing Elia. “What have you gotten her into?”
Elia flinched, looking down at his hands. “I never meant to involve anyone in this,” he mumbled.
“I agreed to help him knowing the risks,” Sierra snapped, drawing Cammy’s glare back to herself. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I never thought to consider they might come after him while other people were around.”
Cammy threw her hands in the air with an exasperated sigh. “Do you even have any idea what you’re dealing with here?” She gestured at Elia. “He can turn into a cat, Sierra, and he said one of those thugs could manipulate earth!”
“Can we not do this right now?” Sierra felt weary. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and go to sleep. Something told her it was going to be a while before she saw her bed again.
Cammy started to argue but then closed her mouth, settling back into her seat with crossed arms. “All right,” she agreed. “But we will be continuing this conversation.”
They fell into a tense silence. Once they got closer to town, Cammy started giving Sierra directions, leading her around the outskirts and in the direction of downtown. “Clearview Heights?” Sierra blurted out, once she recognized where they were going. It was one of the more affluent neighborhoods in town.
“One of my listings,” Cammy explained. “The owners have a ridiculous asking price and no one’s been looking at it. We should be able to hide out there while we sort this out. Plus, it’s got a locking gate and an alarm.”
“Which would hopefully give us some warning if we’re found again,” Sierra amused.
“Not to mention a much quicker response time from the police,” Cammy said.
“I’m not sure how much the police can help us here,” Sierra warned.
“Better than nothing,” Cammy shrugged. “Here, let me out so I can open the gate.”
She ushered both cars inside and locked the gate behind them. Then she keyed in her code to get the house keys, running into the building with a gesture for them to stay put. A few moments later, the garage door rolled open, revealing plenty of room for both cars. Sierra and Intira pulled in beside each other and Cammy shut the garage behind them. Elia retrieved the man from the trunk, throwing him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. They followed Cammy up a few steps and into a huge kitchen. Bobby looked around and let out a low whistle. “Lot of furniture for a house no one lives in,” he observed.
“The furniture is included in the estate,” Cammy said. “The owners didn’t feel like it fit the style of their new home.” Intira rolled her eyes at that and Cammy shrugged, offering a smile. “Well, at least we can hide out in comfort.” She glanced at Elia and sighed. “We can lock him in the pantry for now, I think. This way.”
She and Elia went to do that and everyone else settled around the dining table. Sierra crossed her arms and rested her head on them, avoiding meeting her friends’ eyes. Mierda, what a mess. She’d never meant for them to get tied up in this. How had everything gone so wrong so fast? I really have no idea what I’m doing, do I? How can I expect to help Elia find a way out of this? I can’t keep him safe. I can’t keep anyone safe. Her brooding was cut short by Cammy and Elia’s return.
“All right then,” Cammy said, leaning against the buffet as Elia sat down beside Sierra. “Will the two of you kindly tell us what the bloody hell is going on?”