Kaboom! The right front tire blew. The car’s headlights illuminated the rabbit sitting in the middle of her lane. Barreling up the highway entrance ramp, Jane Drysdale didn’t have time to react.
“Damn.” The animal disappeared between the front tires and the vehicle swung to the right. She heard a sickening “thunk, thunk” and tightened her grip on the steering wheel to wrestle back control, but it was too late. The car careened down the embankment, still going sixty miles per hour, and she watched in horror as she headed for a stand of trees.
Jane stomped on the brakes. The car fishtailed, straightened and, for a few brief seconds, paralleled the road before a line of trees, smaller than the first, rose up before her. She jerked the steering wheel left and ground her foot into the brakes again.
The vehicle veered up the embankment, shuddered and died. Momentum threw Jane forward. The airbag exploded in her face.
Her last conscious thought was the memory of the rabbit shimmering into a more human-like shape then reforming just before it slid under her wheels.
• • •
An insistent pounding pulled her from the darkness. At first, she thought it came from her right temple where most of the pain in her head centered. It continued, and Jane recognized the sound of someone rapping on glass. With a groan, she twisted and peered from one eye.
Less than a foot away, a man stared at her, mouthing words she couldn’t understand and beating on the car window. He looked deranged. Automatically, she reached to touch the buttons to lock the door and windows only to remember she’d traded in her beloved Mercury last month. The older Neon, with smaller payments, didn’t have the luxury of power options.
Her left arm slow to react, Jane reached across with her right to lock the door. Inexplicably, she noted the button in the down position. Had Detroit changed how things worked? Still disoriented, she pulled up on the tab.
A moment later, the door jerked open from the outside. The man groped her middle with rough hands and fumbled to unsnap her seat belt. The catch gave, and he wrenched her free.
“Hey!” she yelled, not only from the harsh treatment but the new set of aches that made themselves known.
“There is a fire!” an accented male voice said in her ear.
Jane twisted in her rescuer’s hold. From the corner of her eye she saw a flicker of orange. She gasped and struggled against his grip.
“Let me go,” she shouted. She made her body go limp. Dead weight isn’t easy to carry off to murder and rape.
Her rescuer released her, and Jane staggered to her feet. The scene before her echoed that of a nightmare.
She must have swerved the car too sharply because she’d plowed straight into the embankment and crumpled the car’s front end. The hood had popped open, and from under its steel canopy a fire the size of her microwave blazed.
Jane swore. This will be nice explaining to the insurance company. OhmyGod, the toys! At the thought of her merchandise, packed in Rubbermaid containers in her back seat and trunk, Jane lurched forward. She had a lot of money tied up in inventory, and it definitely would be impossible to explain to State Farm.
“Get back!” the man shouted. “Stay away!”
“Try and stop me!” she called over her shoulder and stumbled and slipped across the dew-drenched grass.
His hand closed over hers on the door handle. She yanked herself free, using the momentum to elbow him in the stomach. She had the satisfaction of hearing his “whumf” before she pulled open the door and tugged out one of six containers.
By the time she had two free, he’d recovered and pushed her aside to get the third.
“Idiot mortal,” he exclaimed under his breath.
“Mortal?” She crawled around him in the almost-empty back seat. Smoke filled the interior, and she heard fire crackling. “What does that make you? Witch? Warlock?” She pulled down the split rear back to expose the opening to the trunk. “Help me with this, will you?” Smoke billowed around them and obscured her vision.
“Get out of here!” he yelled.
“Not until I get my stuff!” The seat down, she grabbed the closest box and shoved it in his direction. She heard it slide away, accompanied by a string of what sounded like curses in a language she didn’t recognize.
Smoke stung her eyes and burned her lungs, but it didn’t stop her from crawling into the trunk and reaching for its release handle. Pulling it with her good hand, she kicked the lid open. Fresh air hit her. Someone helped her out.
“The boxes,” she cried.
“We have them,” said a new voice, also accented.
Jane twisted around. A man regarded her, older than the first, but the same build, slight, wiry, an inch or two taller than her five-foot-six. She swiveled her head and saw four others, similar in appearance, all wearing woolen hats or caps, jeans and lightweight jackets. Jockeys? Chimneysweeps? Circus performers?
“Who are you people?” she asked. She searched for the first guy, the one who’d pulled her from her car.
Backlit by the destructive fire in her little Neon, he supervised the stacking of her boxes.
“Darrin,” she cried. “Yoo-hoo, Darrin Stephens. Over here.” Technically it wasn’t accurate, Darrin being the mortal in the old sitcom, “Bewitched,” but how many famous warlocks can one name? Jane nodded a thanks to the old guy, a move that made her head ache more, and tramped to her rescuer’s side.
He caught her arm, his eyes bright with the reflection of the flames. “Get back. It will explode.”
She shook her head. “You watch too many movies. It doesn’t happen like that in real–”
A huge boom cut off her words. Her companion threw her to the ground and hurled himself on top of her. Jane cried out at the impact, her bruised body about to mutiny at the abuse it had taken. They rolled several feet before coming to a stop. Shards of burning debris rained around them.
Pandemonium broke out. Shouts filled the air, again in a dialect she didn’t know. Metal crashed to the ground, some of it very close. The roar of the fire intensified.
Jane lay for several moments under the stranger, adjusting to his weight, listening to the sound of his harsh breathing in her ear. After what seemed a reasonable time for him to move, she nudged him in the ribs with a pointed finger.
“Hey, Darrin, you mind getting off me?”
He muttered something and rolled away, took her hand and rose with her in a fluid movement.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
She had a slight ringing in her ears and the beginning of a headache, plus various bumps and bruises. “From the crash? Yes. From the explosion? Not too much. How about you?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
Jane looked around. Only the five other men seemed to have stopped at the accident scene. Of course, it was close to one o’clock in the morning. She verified the time on her Indiglo watch and realized Darrin still held her hand.
“Hey,” she cried, pulling free. “Thanks for saving my life and all that, but I’m not giving out rewards. Not the kind you’re thinking of anyway.” She changed the subject. “Did you guys call 9-1-1?”
“9-1-1?” he repeated.
“Yeah, like maybe a fire truck or two.” She watched in dismay as the husk of her car continued to burn. “Not that it will do me any good, but those hunky firemen like to practice. Keeps their hormones up.”
“They will be here.”
“Great.” Jane shivered, aware that the temperature had dropped since she’d left Kendra’s party. She’d made a lot of money tonight, and Darrin had helped save what she hadn’t sold. Orders, checks and cash lay tucked in one of the boxes.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“Yes, I am. Also bruised, battered, dirty, smoky and a dozen other things I’m too tired to think about.”
“Come with me. I will give you something to cover you.”
A sweater or a blanket sounded good. It was early April, and she hadn’t thought it might be cool after the party. Jane followed him a few steps then stopped.
“I’m not leaving my boxes. As soon as the fire trucks show up, every gawker within a five-mile radius will rouse himself from in front of his television and hop in his pickup truck. I’m surprised there isn’t anyone here yet, what with police scanners and CB’s.”
“You are worried about the boxes?”
Didn’t he hear what she said? “Yes.”
He put two fingers in his mouth and let out a multi-toned whistle. “My companions will bring them.”
“Your companions? I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but where are you fellows from?”
“Sylthia.” He ducked his head and held a low branch out of her way as they continued their walk.
“Sylthia,” she repeated. “And where is that, exactly?”
“Uh-huh. Is that where you learned English? Because you really need to buy a contraction or two, Vanna.”
“My name,” he said, his voice firm, “is Charlie.”
Charlie. Uh-huh. Just her luck to draw a Charlie for a rescuer. If this were a romance novel, his name would be Chase. He’d be six inches taller, forty pounds heavier, have buns to die for and reek of testosterone. Instead, she’d wound up with a reed of man who looked like he didn’t shave more than once a week. Without a sense of humor, too. Didn’t he own a television? Of course, not everyone watched reruns night after lonely night like she did. Nevertheless, the guy didn’t seem to have a clue.
At least, he’d helped save her merchandise. Jane looked over her shoulder to check on its progress. The leader followed them, one of the boxes in his arms. Good. She couldn’t afford to lose any of her “toys.” “Realm of Pleasures” was the latest in her long string of get-rich-quick schemes. At various times, she’d moonlighted from her ho-hum secretarial job. She’d tried various products with little success. “Realm” seemed to be the niche she’d been seeking. Selling lotions, potions, massage oils and adult playthings to bored, rich women delivered a slow but steady income.
Not that she had much use for anything that involved a partner, her love life being the way it was, but she could testify to the effectiveness of the vibrators. The “Long, Tall Texan” was her current favorite.
A gust of cold wind snapped Jane from her thoughts. She looked from the path they’d been following and realized they weren’t anywhere near the highway. Furthermore, they’d been walking for some time.
“Hey.” She stopped in her tracks. “Where are you fellows parked, anyway? Why aren’t we up by the road so we can direct the firemen?” She turned, trying to make sense of the landscape. “Where are we?” Mist swirled around them, making it impossible to see more than a few feet. It muffled any noise. She felt as if she’d stepped into a white vacuum.
Charlie stopped, a look of impatience on his face. “We are almost there.”
“How far away is it? Why are you guys out this late?”
Her companion touched her arm. “All will be answered.”
Something didn’t sound right about this outfit. Jane tried to pull free from his grip, but he was stronger.
“Let go of me,” she shouted. The mist swallowed her words. Not so much as an echo came back to her. “I don’t like this. Where are your companions? Help!”
“They went ahead.” He tugged on her to follow him. “We are almost there.”
Jane resisted. She hadn’t heard anyone pass them.
“You belong to some kind of cult, don’t you? I can tell by the way you’re dressed. OhmyGod, you’re white slavers. You’re going to sell me into a prostitution ring.” Her heart race faster. She raised her free hand. “Watch out. I know karate.”
“You are wrong.” Charlie looked ready to do the Vulcan neck pinchy thing on her.
“You’re wrong. I’m not taking another step with you.”
He sighed. “As you wish.”
Before she knew what he’d done, she felt a sharp pain, like the bite from a ten-pound mosquito, on her bare arm. She looked down to see him withdraw a small thorn from her flesh.
“OhmyGod,” she said again. “You’re into drugs, too.” Then the mist changed to black and swallowed her.
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