Jess snorted at Sasha’s irreverent question. "No. They were humans who committed crimes so unspeakable and horrific that the winter winds turned their hearts to ice. Now they can only live off the souls of humans."
"And they were one of Snake’s plagues," Ren added. "Which means he and Coyote will be even more hell-bent on finding Old Bear’s."
Sasha nodded as he listened. "Point taken there. Now, the important question, so pay attention, ye ADD degenerates. How the F do I kill them? ‘Cause no offense, I was trying and they were kicking my ass all over the place. It really wasn’t pretty and didn’t do much for my ego either. My only reprieve is that no one I have to face on a regular basis witnessed my beating. Don’t know why you wanted me here when I’m about as useful as a wart on Artemis’s bum."
Smiling at his rant, Choo Co La Tah melted his staff back down to the bracelet, then coiled it around his wrist again. "Simple, Wolf. Like a Daimon, pierce the heart and the ice shatters inside. They die instantly. As you saw from Sundown, a shotgun will blow the heart apart and end them."
Sasha narrowed his gaze on Jess. "How you know that, cowboy?"
"Didn’t. But a twelve-gauge round to the head or heart will take down just about anything. And if doesn’t, kiss your ass good-bye and run like hell."
Abigail crossed her arms over her chest and drummed her fingernails on her biceps. "By the way, you and I need to talk about how you got that gun when I know it wasn’t in the truck." She raked him with a glance from head to toe that succeeded in making him flinch. "You’ve been holding out on me."
How in the world could he be more afraid of her, a tiny little slip of a woman, than he’d been of the tsi-nooks?
"What was that?"
They all turned to look at Sasha who was staring into the darkness.
Jess frowned. "What?"
Ren stepped back as if he might have heard it, too. "We need to get going."
Sasha gestured toward the smoldering remains of the Bronco. "How? Are you an African swallow in another form or something?"
Choo Co La Tah scowled. "African swallow? What are you going on about now?"
"Oh c’mon, surely all of you get the Mon … ty … Python…" Sasha paused as if he remembered his audience. "Never mind."
Jess rubbed at his jaw. "He’s right. It’s too far to walk, and with the exception of Sasha and Ren, we don’t have a ride."
Choo Co La Tah pointed to the parked tractor trailers. "What about one of those?"
Jess considered it. "Someone might have left keys in one. Let’s go see."
Abigail walked in the center of the men while she listened for another attack. It was so dark, she could barely see. There was a low-lying cloud cover that held back the stars. It made the air feel heavy. Ominous. Or maybe that was from the fact that she knew what was out to get her.
Without thinking, she reached out and took Jess’s rough hand. When he laced his fingers with hers, it warmed her in spite of the cold desert wind. She took strength from his nearness, and it made her wish that they didn’t have to do this.
Made her wish that she could find some way to end the nightmare and return to a normal life.
Your life was never normal.
That was certainly true. But for the first time, she wanted normality. She craved it now that it was too late to claim it. She’d already cast her die and come up bust.
One way or the other, her life was over. If by some miracle she did survive all of this and convince Choo Co La Tah not to sacrifice her to the spirits she’d offended, she had no doubt that one of the other Dark-Hunters would kill her for what she’d done.
There was no hope. Not now.
How could I have screwed up my life so badly?
The same way everyone did. She’d listened to and trusted the wrong people. Had put her faith and energy into the wrong things, only to learn too late that she shouldn’t have harbored hatred.
I’m so stupid.
Jess paused as they reached the trucks. He and Abigail searched the first one for keys while the others spread out to check the rest.
One by one, they reported failure.
"Hey!" Sasha shouted after a minute. "I don’t have keys, but this one’s open. Anyone know how to hot-wire?"
Ren gave him an arch stare. "Can’t you use your powers to start it?"
Sasha raked him with an equally offended sweep. "Can’t you?"
Abigail held her hands up. "Step aside, boys. I have the evil powers for this."
Jess smiled as she climbed inside the cab and vanished under the dash. "My lady got mad skills," he said, imitating the slang Sasha used.
Then he sobered as he realized what he’d done.
He’d claimed her. Publicly. But that wasn’t what shocked him. The fact that he truly thought of her like that did. She was a part of him now. Even though they hadn’t known each other long, she had breached his defenses and wormed her way into his heart.
Oh my God. The very idea terrified him.
He wouldn’t call it love.
It wasn’t what he felt for Matilda by a long shot, and yet there were enough similarities that it left him wondering. When had he known he loved Matilda?
The day he’d realized he couldn’t live without her.
Bart had told him that he wanted to move on. That it was time for them to find a new base of operations. Normally, Jess would have been packed up in a few hours and been ready to ride. Instead, an excruciating pain had ripped him apart when he thought about not seeing Matilda again. It’d been so debilitating that it brought him to his knees.
Nothing had struck him like that since.
Not until he’d seen the tsi-nooks going after Abigail.
I would die for her. That fact hit him like a punch in the jaw. He really would. She had a power over him that not even Matilda had possessed. I’m so screwed.
The semi started up, startling him away from his train of thought.
Blinking, he realized the other men were staring at him like he’d grown a third head. "What?" he asked defensively.
Sasha snorted. "I have never in my extremely long life seen anyone take so long to answer a question. It’s like you went into your mind and got lost. You need a bread crumb, buddy?" He made a noise like he was calling his pet. "Here, Lassie, here. Come back, girl."
Jess shoved at him. "Shut up. What did you ask me, anyway?"
Sasha slapped himself on the forehead and groaned. "Really? Good thing I didn’t tell you to duck a bomb."
He started to respond, but Abigail’s frantic voice stopped him.
"Gentlemen. We have company."
The men climbed up the sides of the truck to see why Abigail had called them. Ren and Sasha on the passenger side. Choo Co La Tah and Jess on hers.
Jess stood in the open door with one hand braced against the top, looking down at her. "What is it, babe?"
Stunned, all she could do was point at the herd of … whatever it was, speeding toward them. The group was stirring up a huge cloud of dust in their wake. Not even the darkness could conceal their presence. Mostly because their number was just that impressive.
Some she knew to be tsi-nooks. Others were definitely coyotes and the last group she assumed were the bounty hunters they’d been talking about.
Ren’s jaw went slack.
Sasha outdid them all. He laughed. "Now there’s something you don’t see everyday. Gah, I hope there’s no human roaming around with a video recorder or cell phone. Be a bitch to explain that. Easier just to kill them."
Ren ignored him. "Did they open the Gate already?"
That would explain it.
But Choo Co La Tah shook his head. "They’re trying to scare us."
"Working. ‘Cause the wolf here is definitely feeling an ‘oh shit’ moment." He glanced over to Abigail. "You wouldn’t want to change my diaper, would you?"
Jess shook his head at the wolf. He started to take the wheel from Abigail, then paused. "You know this is one of those moments when you think about the fact that you didn’t quite complete the plan."
She frowned. "How so?"
He glanced around their small group. "Anyone know how to drive a semi?"
Ugh! She could kick herself for not thinking of that. Since they’d trained her to go after Dark-Hunters, Jonah had taught her the skill of hot-wiring-just in case she needed a quick getaway. She even knew how to start electronic and digital ignitions.
Why hadn’t she ever taken the time to learn a standard transmission?
Sasha and Ren exchanged a bemused stare. "I don’t drive," they said simultaneously.
Her heart sank. Of course they didn’t. Ren flew as a bird and Sasha did that flashing thing. When would they have ever needed a driver’s license?
"Can’t you flash us out?" she asked Sasha.
He let out a fake, hysterical laugh. "My powers were strangled by a bitch-goddess as punishment for my gross stupidity. I’m lucky I can still flash myself, never mind other people. All I have is raw power and sexy, fighting prowess. Well, okay, if I had to, I might teleport one, maybe two others. But I wouldn’t bet my better body parts on it."
Ren frowned. "I didn’t think you could lose psychic powers."
"You can’t, Dark-Hunter boy. But mine weren’t a gift. I was born with them. Total different standard. Lucky me."
Jess arched a brow at her. "Can you drive it?"
"No. I can’t drive a stick at all. It’s why I took Andy’s car and not one of yours."
"Oh people, for goodness’ sake … Move over." Choo Co La Tah pushed past Jess to take the driver’s seat.
Curious about that, she slid over to make room for the ancient.
Jess hesitated. "Do you know what you’re doing?"
Choo Co La Tah gave him a withering glare. "Not at all. But I figured someone needed to learn and no one else was volunteering. Step in and get situated. Time is of the essence."
Abigail’s heart pounded. "I hope he’s joking about that." If not, it would be a very short trip.
Ren changed into his crow form before he took flight.
Jess and Sasha climbed in, then moved to the compartment behind the seat. A pall hung over all of them while Choo Co La Tah adjusted the seat and mirrors.
By all means, please take your time. Not like they were all about to die or anything …
She couldn’t speak as she watched their enemies rapidly closing the distance between them. This was by far the scariest thing she’d seen. Unlike the wasps and scorpions, this horde could think and adapt.
They even had opposable thumbs.
Whole different ball game.
Choo Co La Tah shifted into gear. Or at least he tried. The truck made a fierce grinding sound that caused Jess to screw his face up as it lurched violently and shook like a dog coming in from the rain.
"You sure you don’t want me to try?" Jess offered.
Choo Co La Tah waved him away. "I’m a little rusty. Just give me a second to get used to it again."
Abigail swallowed hard. "How long has it been?"
Choo Co La Tah eased off the clutch and they shuddered forward at the most impressive speed of two whole miles an hour. About the same speed as a limping turtle. "Hmm, probably sometime around nineteen hundred and…"
They all waited with bated breath while he ground his way through more gears. With every shift, the engine audibly protested his skills.
Silently, so did she.
The truck was really moving along now. They reached a staggering fifteen miles an hour. At this rate, they might be able to overtake a loaded school bus …
Or at the very least, the day after that.
"… must have been the summer of … hmm … let me think a moment. Fifty-three. Yes, that was it. 1953. The year they came out with color teles. It was a good year as I recall. Same year Bill Gates was born."
The look on Jess’s and Sasha’s faces would have made her laugh if she wasn’t every bit as horrified. Oh my God, who put him behind the wheel?
Sasha visibly cringed as he saw how close their pursuers were to their bumper. "Should I get out and push?"
Jess cursed under his breath as he saw them, too. "I’d get out and run at this point. I think you’d go faster."
Choo Co La Tah took their comments in stride. "Now, now, gentlemen. All is well. See, I’m getting better." He finally made a gear without the truck spazzing or the gears grinding.
Abigail cringed as she saw the whites of the eyes of their pursuers. "They’re almost at our tailgate."
"Excuse me, darling." Jess slid over her lap to roll down the window.
She started to ask him what he was doing, but before she could, he held his hand out toward Sasha.
Sasha handed it over like a surgical assistant.
Jess leaned against the door with one leg braced over her lap. He pressed his thigh lightly against her stomach as he started shooting at the ones chasing them. The rapid fire rang in her ears as she felt his muscles contracting with each movement. He leaned out further.
Choo Co La Tah snatched the wheel to avoid an abandoned car in the road.
The motion tipped Jess so fast that he lost his balance and fell forward, through the window. Terrified he was about to fall to the street, Abigail wrapped herself around him to hold him in place.