Charlie was normal. Like normal-normal. There wasn’t an air of other about him. He was so normal his tedious conversation about baseball actually didn’t annoy me.
I hated baseball.
If it was America’s favorite pastime, I was a five-foot-three leprechaun.
I leaned back against the plush seats of the Tahoe and stretched my body, trying to work out some of the tension and kinks. The bruises from my earlier dance with ginger and brick had healed externally, but I could still feel the internal process of vessels being knitted back together.
Charlie’s eyes followed every flex of muscle as I sought to relieve the tension. I hated when people focused on me. Most people wanted to be seen. I was the exact opposite. Life was better if our crossing paths boiled down to: I was never here. Of course, the exception was delicious gingers that made my blood boil with lust. I thought momentarily of the Raven-haired vixen from Rochester I’d had…dinner with the previous night. Yes, exceptions. Multiple exceptions. There were always exceptions.
Charlie was not an exception. He was, however, paying far too close attention to the rise of my hips, the lengthening of my spine, and the resulting arch of my chest. He was only a man and all of that crap, but there was…more. I eyed him warily as his eyes flitted away. I pushed back against the seat, feeling the Bone Blade in its sheath pressing flush against my back.
Bringing my hand up, I pulled my phone from my pocket.
Roni: Veggie Man, how cool is this Charlie dude?
The text went out fast. My single-thumb texting skills were almost superhuman quick, thanks to an almost obsessive need to never talk to anyone on the phone. Practice made perfect and all that.
Herbie: That’s Dan. Charlie couldn’t get to you fast enough, so he sent his brother in his truck. He didn’t tell you his name? Weird.
As I read the first response, my phone buzzed again.
Herbie: You ok, Wingz?
I glanced over at Mr. Baseball. I couldn’t tell his height because he hadn’t gotten out of the Tahoe when he’d pulled up, but his shoulders were massive. The sandpaper-brown skin of his face was covered with an unkept, almost wiry beard. A dingy Baltimore Orioles ball cap was pulled tight to his head. If I had to guess, under the cap, he was bald or balding. He was easily in his late thirties or early forties, though the toothpick hanging from his lips gave him that dusty-south fifty-year-old man feel. Basically, he was a lot of ick with a bit of hick.
The swift size up only brought one conclusion. His weight and possible height meant my only real defense to any attack would be an offense.
My hand was warm, the skin itching like something was trying to claw its way through. I flexed my fingers, trying to relieve the annoyance. It didn’t abate. Instead, I reached for the blade at my back. Swinging quickly in a low arc under the dash, I brought the fierce blade up, embedding it into the soft flesh of not-Charlie’s side. There was a wet pop and a gasp of shock before warm blood splattered my face as the truck began to swerve—
“We’re here.” Not-Charlie’s voice pulled me back from the vision of his murder. First degree, apparently.
I coughed lightly, blinking to clear my vision of the blotches of his blood I still saw on my face. “Where’s here, Charlie?”
“Oh, no-no, sweetie. Name’s Daniel, Dan for short. Charlie had a thing. I was doing him a favor for his favor.”
Okay, Dan. I nodded slowly, still uneasy. “Where’s here?”
My phone buzzed again. I glanced down at the lock screen.
Herbie: Roni! What the fuck is up?
Dan cleared his throat, opening the door, and beginning the process of climbing out of the Tahoe. “Here is Charlie’s place. Nearest hotel is about 20 miles east and not near any rentals. He has a loft in the barn. We figured you could crash for the night, and we could take you to the rental spot in the morning.”
I watched as he eventually unfolded from the truck. He was about six-foot-four, so a bit taller than previously anticipated. Height wouldn’t necessarily be a factor…if I had to lunge.
I watched as he leaned down near the front wheel of the truck. Taking a deep breath, I unlocked my phone to answer Herbie.
Roni: Shady Energy. Dude is pretty dusty. At Charlie’s house. Staying in the loft in the barn for the night. Will take me to rental in the morning. Plate number is FLY7BALL. If I wake up dead, it’s on you.
I turned, watching Dan amble down the long driveway to a two-story, gray house. He walked with a shuffling limp, a slight favoring of his right leg. I filed the information away. It was another advantage if I needed it. I opened the Tahoe door just in time to hear the screen on the house bang shut with his entry into the main house.
The grass was cut, there were kids’ toys dotting the lawn and flowers lining the path to the door. Normal, normal, and more normal. I was probably being paranoid.
Herbie: They’re norms, Wingz. You got all the power if you need it, babe. Don’t need it, though. That’s not who you are.
Remy’s face flashed before my eyes. Herbie had no idea who I was.
Roni: You’re too good for me, Herbs.
Herbie: Yeah, probably. Watch your neck and stay in touch.
I sighed, grabbed my go-bag, and climbed out of the truck, stashing my phone in my back pocket as I did a check for my blade. I hoped I wouldn’t need it.
I was a worrywart. The brothers and their family were perfectly sweet. They fed me. They laughed with me. They gave me the essentials to shower away the grime of my day in the car. They led me safely to the barn loft and a soft bed with promises to return in the morning bearing coffee and a ride to the car rental lot.
Apparently, the prospect of going home had me seeing shadows and darkness on faces where there were none.
After a quick shower in their small but tidy guest bathroom, I made my way out to the barn. I climbed into the loft, snuggled into the cozy bed, then pulled out my phone.
Roni: Safe in bed.
Herbie: Me too.
Herbie: Goodnight, Wingz!
I drifted off with a smirk curving my lips.
The humidity in New Orleans is insane. It takes no prisoners, least of all my hair. But at night, under the breeze of hard-working air conditioners and ceiling fans, it can almost feel like heaven if you lie still enough, and a sexy man is tracing ice cubes over your hardened nipples.
Or agony…it could also feel like agony as he looks down at you, his eyes full of the desire and a need you clearly feel pressed against your core.
“Fuck, Remy,” I moan, my hand snaking up to cup his jutted chin.
Desire morphs quickly into sadness. “Not the time, RC. Wakey Bakey.”
My hand was on fire.
A pulsing heat radiated from my palm up my right arm. I wanted to scream. No sound escaped, though. My eyes focused in horror as fire emitted from my palm straight through the center of Dan’s chest. Dan was definitely bald, up top at least. It looked like he was definitely due for a shave.
He crouched over me, pants pulled down, and cock out. It hung brown and limp, almost hidden by his sagging belly and nest of black curls. His mouth was open in a silent oh, as his t-shirt and chest melted away. I scuttled backward on the bed, the bright ball of fire in my hand dissipating right before Dan collapsed to the floor.
Fucking hell. Muthafuckinhickfuckhell!
Never doubt your instincts, RC.
It was Remy’s number one rule. It had kept me alive for all these years. Now, on the way back home, I was suddenly going soft.
I should have never decided to make the trek back. You don’t live in reverse.
I shouldn’t have stayed with people I didn’t know.
Crescent, help me. I could smell his burning flesh.
The burn, the char…
Fa-fa-fava beans, sinner-girl. You gonna love this cooking.
I giggled at the memory, at the sound of Remy’s voice impersonating Hannibal Lector as he danced around his mother’s kitchen. He could be so goofy and endearing. One minute I was his sinner-girl, the next I was his redeemer. Then, the next, his murderer.
Sobering up, I stared at the arm flopped on the edge of the bed. I need to go. Move! Glancing around, I looked through the window across the barn. It was still dark. Jumping into action, I scurried, grabbing my phone and clothes. My energy was non-existent. I felt sluggish and close to vomiting, but I pushed through. Fuck if I was getting caught in that town next to a dead body. Self-defense or not, there was no way for me to explain burning a hole through some man’s middle.
I pulled the sheets from the bed, kicking Dan’s dead, disgusting flesh out of the way when necessary. I used the cover to wipe down all the surfaces, grabbing the can of cleaning spray from the corner stand, then spraying down every surface and smearing it with the sheets. If any prints were left from the wipe down, the chemicals should’ve degraded the rest. Hopefully.
Carrying everything down, I dressed in the bottom barn, wrapped the sheets up in the pillowcase like a sack, then swished around the hay on the ground to confuse any footprints. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but years of Law & Order marathons made me feel like I was on the right track.
Sneaking out the barn door, I made my way quickly up the driveway path to the Tahoe. One thing I’d noticed on the way in that good ole boy Dan had tucked the keys under the wheel well. I hopped in, kept the lights off, and coasted down the long drive away from the house. When I was about three miles out, I turned off my phone, turned on the headlights, and gunned it.
I didn’t stop for 83 miles when the tank started demanding filling.
Luckily, the sun was coming up by then.
Hopping out, I wiped down the Tahoe, locked it up, pocketed the keys, and crossed the silent highway until I was on the other side. Then I began my backward trek up the shoulder for two exits.
The walk was longer than expected but gave my brain time to start settling down a bit. I didn’t know what I’d find at the exit or who would see me making my way there. Traffic was sparse, but that actually probably made me stand out more.
There was a ball in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t pin an emotion to it because, other than the ball, I couldn’t feel anything. I should’ve felt something. I’d just barbecued a man. I’d woken up in the process of melting through his sternum.
I could still smell the char.
Next to the ball in my belly, the closest feeling was annoyance. Why couldn’t he have kept his dick in his pants? Why couldn’t he have just proved me wrong? What would happen once his family found him? They knew my connection to Herbie, which meant I might not make it far at all.
I focused on those things with each step because I couldn’t handle thinking of the power I wielded literally in the palm of my hand. I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do, but killing people with my bare hands…
You can’t run from what you are, sinner-girl. Power don’t take no breaks, and it don’t let its wielders go easy, now. I could hear Remy’s voice in my head like he was walking right beside me. You can only be who you be. You keep trynna be somethin’ else, and it’s gonna bring us all a world of hurt.
Crescent, help me. I’d always hated when he was right.