The darkness fades and my vision returns with sporadic, spotty yellow lights. It’s like I’ve been rubbing my eyes, hard, for several seconds.
In front of me, short and tall liquor bottles, line several wood shelves with a square streak-free mirror at the center. The bottles sparkle in the dim spotlights and my sensitive eyes pick up shimmering rainbows that flow with a ray of colors I can’t name. I can smell the liquid in the bottles and the quick sting or slick syrupy aroma.
The ringing in my ears fade and quickly pick up subtle sounds of my surroundings – a fly buzzes by my head, the ice maker hum, and the tick of the clock hanging over the front door. It’s a place I recognize, and a release a subtle breath of relief.
This is how it always is – the unconsciousness, yet clearly I’m not, because I wake in a completely different area than where I had blacked out.
The first few times it happened, I was unsettled and scared. Once, the very first time, I had woken in a the passenger seat of a moving truck, driven by a farmer making his way down the highway. I had screamed and was crippled with fear, afraid I had been kidnapped with no memories to prove otherwise. The driver swerved the car, the tires squeal, and the cab vibrated we he pulled to the gravel on the side of the road, demanding I get out. He thought I was crazy. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s right.
However, when it happens now, it’s not a big deal. It’s a far cry from previous experiences. I don’t wake scared, because on some level, I’m aware of what’s happened even before I fully wake. I’ve grown accustomed to my problem – my illness – and it’s easier to mask when I come around, which is handy if I have an audience.
I grip the cool, dewy glass I hold, my fingers firmly wrapped around the base. A sip-worth of golden liquid has settled at the bottom, the rest of it already consumed if the burn of my throat is anything to go by. The glass, and my wrist, is rested against a newly refinished, slick bar top.
A sense of calm overcomes my unease. This is home – my home. Well . . . my commandared home – a place I feel safe. How I got here, I have no idea. I must have made my way and settled on a stool for a drink. What happened tonight? Where did my hunter go? And how am I still alive.
A throat clears, snapping me from my thoughts.
I raise my gaze to the bar owner. “I’ll have another, Cinderson.”
The curly blond hair, burly man drying the glass cups behind the bar, lifts his eyes, quirking a brow.
“How many times do I have to tell you it’s Cinder? He corrects. “And that would be your fourth, Jinx. Free, might I add, because you’ve never handed me a dime.”
Double Down Bar is Cinder’s pride and joy. He own and runs it by himself, and occasionally I help behind the bar in the evenings so he can go home, wherever his home is. I don’t serve the customers because he asks. He’s never asked. I do it because I owe him. I feel terrible about not having any money to pay for my own drinks, let alone the apartment upstairs.
I stretch my arms to the side. They tingle at the joints. “Just pour me another.”
He cocks his head and slaps the damp towel across his shoulder. For a bartender, he’s muscular and the towel molds to him like silk against a wet body. He’s attractive, I’ll give him that. “You better slow down. You came here in a daze, little girl -”
“Jinx,” I correct with a growl.
He continues as though I didn’t say a word. “Confused almost. If I had to guess, I’d say my bar isn’t the only bar you’ve been to today. Do you know it’s only four o’clock? And though you seem to be coming out of your drooling stupor, that alcohol will hit you like a ton of bricks in a few minutes if you don’t slow down.”
Four o’clock? I have a whole day unaccounted for? There’s no telling what else my unconscious mind did with my body – where I roamed, what I did . . .
I gulp, forcing my mind to change the subject. “How many times are you going to father me?”
“Until you hear me.”
I roll my eyes, petty. He always tells me to slow down, probably hoping I won’t vomit on his floor. I’ve never been drunk – that I know of. I don’t know why he continues to warn me, though he also doesn’t know any better. I’d think he would get the hint by now that his advice isn’t wanted. It makes me wonder what he thinks of me. In his eyes, I must seem like a bum, desperate for direction and lonely beyond all reason. . .
He may be on to something there.
I stroll in here, dazed, downing scotch like it’s water, and yet, he’s kind, if not playfully snooty.
Since I met him, he’s been careful not to pry, but I can tell his patience are coming to an end. Even if he had questions, I wouldn’t have answers to give him. Well… I have some answers, but none he’ll believe.
“Where is everyone?” I ask, realizing the bar is empty.
He shrugs. “Probably avoiding your stench. Didn’t you wear that yesterday? When is the last time you showered?”
I glance at the mirror beside the shelves of liquor, my view partially obscured by Cinder’s broad shoulder. He sighs, turns, and lifts a bottle of sparkling gold liquor from its throne.
My jeans and black short sleeve shirt is stiff with salty, dried sweat and my socks feel like they’re swimming in my twenty dollar tennis shoes.
“Are you going to share?” he asks.
I frown, keeping my eyes on myself. “Share what? The scotch?”
He grabs the glass from my now limp grip. “No, not the liquor. I don’t need the alcohol, but you seem to. Are you going to tell me what’s going on with you?”
And there it is.
I ignore him for now, continuing to stare at myself, hoping my eyes hold the key to the answers I seek. These are answers I’m bound to never get – where I’m from, my parents, my genes.
I’ve been told I’m pretty, of Asian descend, but I don’t see it. I see a lost woman, roaming for a place to call home – an impossibility. There’s no place for someone like me – someone who’s sick and running from people set on murder.
My mind drifts. That’s what I feel like I am: sick. I have no other explanation for the memory loss and blackouts, and I have no money to for medical help. I’m alone, so if I die it’s not like it’d matter. The ‘ninjas of the night’ would return to their rabbit hole, too. There would be nothing left to chase but bones.
My long black hair is French braided, tight, against my scalp, a hairdo I find odd. During my stroll last evening, as I was being chased, it was left loose and had cascaded down my shoulders. At some point, I had braided it.
Light chocolate iris’ held within large white orbs and flushed pink cheeks complete my features.
Cinder places my newly-filled glass back on the bar, startling me. The copper liquid sloshes within, raising the tarry, heavy aroma to my nose.
“Thanks, friend,” I mumble, taking my eyes off myself.
He places the bottle back on the shelf and turns to me. “Am I?”
I lift the glass to my lips and take a sip, frowning. “Are you what?”
“Your friend, Loner,” he begins. “You don’t answer my questions when I ask them. You don’t take my advice. You ignore everything I say.”
I tuck my chin, and give him ‘the look.’
He lifts the damp towel from his shoulders and wipes his hands. “Look. One day you waltzed in here, acted like you’ve known me since birth, and moved right in without asking. You’re a demanding little shit, ya know that? You take what you want, and forget the idea of bonding with another person.” He places his hands on the bar and leans toward me. “I don’t know one thing about you, Jinx. I wouldn’t call that a friendship. If you didn’t live upstairs – if I didn’t notice that haunting look in your eyes, you’d be alcohol-less every night, huddled inside an empty, dilapidated refrigerator box, propped by a rusted dumpster, with nobody to call a friend besides the rats stealing your crumbs.”
“Well, that was extra descriptive.” I lift my glass and gulp a swallow. His words hurt more than he’ll ever know.
He lifts his eyebrows. “Just the ‘extra’ truth.”
I pucker my lips. “And here I thought we were BFFs.”
Pushing away from the counter, he rests his rump on the other side and crosses his arms. “BFFs? This is more of a hostage situation. You can’t be best friends with a captor.”
“Is that so?” I ask, twirling the contents inside my cup.
He nods once, the silence stretching on.
I clear my throat. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself, then? You have all these questions about me, but I’ve heard nothing about you.”
“I’m not open for discussion.”
“Right.” I chuff. “Girlfriend? Wife?”
I try again, hoping to rile him. “Do you bat for the same team?”
“No.” His jaw ticks and I allow the small victory to lift the corners of my lips.
“Okay then.” My gaze roams the bar. “Can we get some food up in here? I’m craving onion rings.”
Cinder’s lips part and his features twist in confusion. “You already had some.” He nods to the empty basket at the end of the bar, waiting to be returned to the small kitchen in the back.
His tone quiets, concerned. “Don’t you remember?”
I shift in my seat, the cushion squeaking. “Of course. Just hungry again.” Standing from the barstool, I lift the glass and down the drink, preparing for a quick escape. “Put it on my tab, Cinderson.”
In strides, I walk to the staircase leading to the second floor apartment. I take the first few steps leading to my tiny, commandeered living quarters, and stumble when he calls to my back. “It’s Cinder, Jinx!” His voice grows louder for fear I won’t hear. “And what tab? I haven’t seen a penny from you since you got here!”
I tsk, shaking my head with exaggeration. “Coins cripple the fierce, Cinderson!”
“And it also keeps the lights on!” He shouts before I shut the apartment door.
Taking a deep breath, I sigh and lean my head against the doorframe. The TV I left on quietly jingles a tune to a commercial. I only have one channel, and often, there’s nothing to watch of interest. I leave it on in hopes loneliness doesn’t seep to my soul.
Just like the absence of memories, family, and friends, I have no money to call my own. I can’t continue to survive without money. Eating buttered bread and apples throughout the day is a testament to that fact. I need a job. It’s not that I don’t want one, but I move too often to keep one. It’s a careful plan of survival, but this week I’ve been slacking on my own safety. Besides, my condition doesn’t scream ‘hireable.’ What happens to me is spontaneous, but the anxiety rolling in my stomach speaks to me more than my fears; I’ve had enough. Enough running, enough of not being able to live an actual life. I don’t know how I survived the encounter with the hunter, and I know it won’t be my last, but if I don’t put a stop to this – if I continue to run instead of taking this head-on, I might as well be dead already.
I grip the handle too tight and the iron groans within my fist, molding to my palm – excessive strength a trait I’m used to.
I want a life. I want a husband, kids, a family. If I keep running, I’ll never have any of those things.
A woman’s professional, nasally voice catches my attention. I lift my head from the doorframe and turn to the TV.
My apartment is small. There are no walls seperating each room. The kitchen and dining room, the living area, and my small, twin-sized bed are all in one space. Every piece of furniture here is all borrowed. Lucky for me, whoever had lived here before had left everything.
I take the few steps and stand in front of the TV with my hands on my hips. A short woman with shoulder length brown hair is dressed in pink scrubs. A cartoon dog is embroidered on her breast while on the other side, her name: Dr. Cloe Bane.
“At Riva’s Animal Rescue, we are always looking for new, fun, and energetic employees. If you love working with animals, stop by and apply for our part-time position.”
I snort. Fate had a hand in this one. The thought causes me to frown.
The door to the pack gym swings open and Rex struts in with Evo right behind him. I sneak a peek outside and inhale a whiff of fresh air as it blows in.
Lightning bugs flicker across the landscape, and the scent of pine trees waft inside with the gentle breeze before the door swings closed. It calls to me on a primal level, and beckons my wolf to explore our lands.
The pack gym is in the basement of our compound, accessible only from an outside door. It was the one floor they didn’t renovate during the original construction. Just last year was when the job was tackled.
I mentally soothe my irritated wolf with the promise to let him run later this evening and bring my attention to the pack business.
“Evo?” I ask. “I wasn’t expecting you.” I had expected Cinder and Rex, as was their appointed pack duty. They were suppose to go yesterday, but the scene was off-limits within a block radius, crawling with investigators.
“Cinder got held up,” Rex explains and points his thumb. “Asked Evo here to tag along in his place.”
I curl my top lip. “He didn’t go with you?”
“No,” Evo responds, scratching the blond stubble along his jaw. “The girl who lives in the bar’s apartment wasn’t fit to work the evening shift tonight.”
Rex clears his throat and his Adam’s apple bobs. “Can’t trust new employees.”
Evo shrugs his broad shoulders and his shirt bunches around his biceps. “Maybe she was sick?”
“Could be. He did say she was in a daze.” The two of them snicker under their breath and I get the feeling they’re sharing a private joke. Perhaps they think Cinder is sleeping with the girl and shirked from pack duties to get laid. If it crossed my mind, it’s sure to have crossed theirs. I wouldn’t put it past Cinder.
I set the hand weights back on the rack by my feet, and grab the towel draped around my neck. “What do you have?” I ask, wiping the sweat from my brow and changing the subject.
Rex shakes his head and sits on the bench across from me. “Evo has some serious connections.”
“That’s expected from an ex-FBI agent.” I settle my elbows on my bent knees. “Did you discover anything at the crime scene?”
Evo sits on the exercise ball, carefully balanced as he lowers himself, and it squeaks against the rubber mat floor. The ball protests under his weight, and I briefly wonder if it’ll hold his him for much longer.
“It’s not a vampire killing. Definitely supernatural, though.”
“They let you on the scene?” I ask, and Rex nods. “Was the head really -“
“Blown clean off,” Rex finishes, gesturing an explosion with his hands. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I whistle low, wishing for a moment that I could have examined the scene myself. “Did you catch a scent?”
Evo’s eyebrows flick and he adjusts his seat on the ball while crossing his arms. “We did. Perp is female. Not anyone we’ve encountered. The body was already removed, but with the blood on the factory building, the victim’s scent was still fresh. There’s a slight scent of something I’ve never smelled before, from both of them. Opposites, yet equal. I can’t explain it, Jacob. I’ve never encountered anything like this.”
“Well.” I blow out a breath, confused as much as he is. Evo had traveled most of the country and parts of the world before he left the FBI and took over as Alpha of the Cloven Pack. To pick up traces of supernatural creatures he’s never seen nor smelled before … “There’s not much we can do until we get a lead. One dead body isn’t much to go on, and chances are, she’s long gone by now. I doubt they’ll let you examine the body, either.”
Evo’s lips twist. “I might be able to call in a favor. I know the woman who is running the case. I’ll see if she has any details on the body.”
I nod once. “Do it.”
“Getting to the body will be a lot easier than finding the woman.” Rex adds. “I just wish we knew what she was. I’ve never smelled anything like it.”
“So you keep saying,” I mumble.
A smile spreads across Evo’s face. “How’s the mate hunt going?”
I growl and point. “No. Not you, too.”
Evo uncrosses his arms and holds up his hands, palms out. “Hey, gossip spreads fast.”
“It sure does,” I grumble, giving Rex a pointed look. “How’s fatherhood?”
“Fatherhood.” Evo blows out a breath, puffs his cheeks, and runs a hand down his face. “Sleep is forgotten. Regurgitated breast milk is my new cologne. And it turns out, changing diapers is a timed sport.”
I chuckle. “Little Coleman sounds like trouble.”
“Sure is. It’s his mother’s genes, and you can bet your last dollar I remind my mate every chance I get.”
I shake my head and turn to Rex. “Is Cinder closing down the bar tonight?” He nods. “We’ll need someone to replace him then. Tell Kato he’s running the perimeter. The last thing we need is to be caught unaware by a female with explosive capabilities.”
Rex stands, preparing to leave. “I don’t even know what kind of supernatural creature can do that.”
“Ask Reese, and if she doesn’t know, tell her to dig.”