The Elm Tree was a slim two-story building whose front window was decorated with neon beer adverts, and whose main sign misleadingly referred to it as a hotel and bar. When I walked in, my flip-flops smacked against the sticky hardwood floor like a sloppy kiss, announcing my presence as the only female in the room.
Howard, the sweet, lumberjack-sized bartender, looked up from the beer taps and smiled at me. At least I assumed he smiled because his bearded cheeks moved in an upward direction.
“McQueen,” he acknowledged, his voice so rough he might have been swallowing crushed rocks every night.
I loved that no one here called me Secret. To the men of the Elm Tree, who admired machismo and masculinity above all else, there was no need to call me anything but McQueen. Sharing a name with Steve McQueen, King of Cool, gave me an instant pass with these guys, and that suited me fine. I sidled up to the bar and sat next to a man known only as Bear. He weighed about three hundred pounds and stood almost six-foot-eight whenever he found use for his feet. He had a beard so grizzled it made Howard look clean cut.
“Bear,” I said with a nod.
“McQueen,” he replied into his half-empty pint glass.
I’d often hoped part of Bear’s size and appearance was due to genuine ursine shapeshifter DNA. Having never met or even heard of a were-bear, I longed for a story to share with Lucas and Desmond when I saw them again. Selfishly, I also wanted to know I wasn’t the only freak in Elmwood. Alas, in three months I hadn’t gotten the slightest hint of a supernatural trigger from him. He was as human as they came.
“Rickard’s,” I requested to Howard, who was already filling a glass for me, tipping it to avoid a heady draught. He slid it down the bar to me, partially because he loved minute attempts at flair bartending, and more so because he knew I’d never miss. “Thanks.” I held the drink in one hand and surveyed the room via the large mirror behind the bar.
“Hey, Howard?” I asked. He turned his too-kind eyes towards me. “Who’s the crew cut by the jukebox?”
Considering I spent almost every day at the bar, even the irregulars were known to me, along with most of the gossip about the town and surrounding area. I also knew all about the summer forecast for wheat, canola, flax and sunflowers—mediocre to superb, depending on the number of drinks in the farmer doing the predicting.
There wasn’t a face that passed through the bar I didn’t recognize, or so I’d thought.
Next to the jukebox on which Bruce Springsteen was singing “Thunder Road” sat a man in his mid-thirties. He had an olive complexion, thick black eyebrows over dark black eyes, and his hair was cut short.
“He came in yesterday, took the same booth until close, then left. Came back again soon as we opened tonight. Odd fella.”
All-night drinkers were not so unusual here, so for Howard to single this man out as odd gave me an uneasy feeling. I sniffed the air, but all I got was the ripe scent of Bear’s armpit sweat and the lingering smells of booze and testosterone. I watched the man in the mirror until he shifted his glance and our eyes locked in the glass. For one long, breathless moment we remained in that stare, until he looked away. My heart was pounding, which was not such an easy feat. His expression had been so smug and unflinching. Something was definitely wrong.
I stared into my beer, my skin suddenly cold and beaded with uncomfortable sweat. The way he had stared at me set off every alarm in the book, and there was a nagging feeling in my bones that I needed to find out what was up with this mysterious stranger. When I turned back to the mirror to check on my scary new friend with the crew cut, my breath caught in my throat.
His booth was empty.
I spun around in my chair, pulse hammering. He wasn’t anywhere in the bar. I took a five out of my pocket and put it on the bar.
“Yeah, sorry,” I said, already halfway out the door. “Thanks.”
Outside, the air had grown colder and the town had gone to sleep for the night. A cool breeze ruffled the short hairs at the back of my neck as I stood on the empty road in front of the Elm Tree.
“Where are you?” I asked to myself, listening for any trace of movement. On cue, I heard the soft crunch of gravel coming from the path behind the bar. I hesitated for a moment, knowing it couldn’t be so easy. But I had to know who he was. I followed the sound to the back of the bar and took the path as it sloped down a hill to Howard’s storage shed.
The shed was on the edge of the forest, but even with my ability to see in the dark, I couldn’t discern anyone in the trees.
I walked all the way up to the shed, then stopped. I rested my hand against the rough barn-wood exterior of the small building, hoping to feel the vibration of someone hiding behind or within, but there was nothing. Just like in the woods the night before, all traces of my quarry had vanished. The air smelled heavy with ozone and anxious peat.
Rain was coming.
Closing my eyes, I concentrated harder. I heard the rumble of thunder still miles away but approaching as steadily as a Hun raiding party. I could smell night blossoms turning their hungry faces towards the sound. One by one, crickets and cicadas stopped singing so they could take shelter.
I looked into the blackness of the woods. On a branch, a large barn owl with heavily lidded eyes turned his head to me. I almost dismissed the bird, until I realized he was staring at me.
Staring with a cold, unflinching glare.
Icy fear began at my toes and spread through my whole body in seconds. I wanted to run. Running was the only instinct I understood, but when I tried to move, I found myself frozen in place. My eyes widened with the horror of understanding, and the owl kept its focus on me.
“Who,” the owl said.
My pulse sped up and blood screamed behind my ears until all I could hear was my body’s panic. Without warning, I was bombarded by the fragrance of wolf. The same smell I’d chased the night before. It was so close I should have sensed it sooner, but it seemed to appear out of nowhere, without warning. The wolf was right behind me, but being frozen as I was, I couldn’t turn to face him.
The owl stretched his wings, then pushed off from the branch, flying towards me. Mid-flight, a ripple of blue light shivered over the bird and burst outward in an explosion of white-hot radiance and feathers. The air reeked of burning, and once my vision readjusted to the dark, the owl was gone.
Where the bird has been there was now a man. The olive-skinned man from the bar was about ten feet away from me, straightening his tie and smoothing feathers off his suit. There were no bird shapeshifters, which meant he must have performed a transfiguration spell.
“Witch,” I spat, my jaw aching from the effort.
Transfiguration was an energy-consuming, high-level spell. Grandmere, the best spell caster I knew, had once confessed she was unable to do it. This man had been able to reverse the spell mid-flight and without wrinkling his clothes. The fact he’d managed to do the spell without losing his clothing altogether was all the more remarkable.
“Good evening, Miss McQueen,” he greeted, his voice thick with the melodic accent of a foreign country. North African, I guessed. He sounded and looked like he’d walked off the set of Casablanca. He came closer and lifted the tiger’s-iron pendant from my neck, turning the stone over in his hand before he let it fall back. He smiled.
“I have no interest in harming you. I will, however, need you to be on your best behavior in order to conclude our business together.”
“I’m afraid I don’t think we can trust you to have a nonviolent reaction, given the circumstances, so I apologize for this next bit. Precautions, you understand.”
I had enough time to feel a break in the air over my head, and an instant later something hard and heavy cracked me on my skull.
I saw stars, then nothing at all.
I’m dead, I thought.
Of course, the ability to think negated the content of my thought. But if I wasn’t dead, where was I?
My being awake meant it was most likely night. The question then became was it the same night or had more time passed since I’d last been conscious? It couldn’t have been more than a day, given my speedy healing abilities, but then again, who knew what this witch was capable of?
Trapping me in a tiny, cramped box, for one. I had enough room I could adjust my position and roll over with a little effort, which ruled out a coffin. If I listened, I could hear the quiet sounds of wind. So, buried alive was off the list too. I tried moving my arms and then my legs, both successfully. The paralysis spell had worn off or been lifted. I checked for my gun, but it wasn’t there. When I struck out in frustration, my hand bumped against something, and I peered through the darkness to get a look at it. A tire iron.
This told me two things. The first was I was locked in a car trunk, the second was whoever had put me here hadn’t considered what common items could be used as weapons. I tightened my grip around the tire iron and shrank into the farthest quarter of the trunk, waiting.
Waiting dragged into agonizing hours alone in the trunk, anticipating nothing specific. The uncertainty was making me crazy. What did they want? Why would they come all the way to Elmwood to kidnap me?
It sounded like the start of a bad joke. A witch and a werewolf walk in to a bar…
I refused to loosen my grip on the tire iron, and my joints were aching and stiff. My stomach rumbled in protest of its emptiness, and I felt a sharp ache in my gums. If I didn’t feed soon, I wouldn’t be able to conceal my fangs much longer.
Not that I cared what these hooligans thought I was. As of right now my plan, if they didn’t let me go, was to bash in their skulls with the tire iron and then maybe rip out their throats. I was flexible on the details, as long as the end result was two dead kidnappers.
My breathing had slowed to a near stop, and my heartbeat was unhurried and regular. I could wait them out. As long as there was night left, I would wait. Once the sun rose, though, it would be a different story. I hadn’t fed enough to keep myself awake after sunrise. Dead to the world I was helpless, but in the dark I was a force to be reckoned with.