A permanent injury in the line of duty effectively ended Ian Ryker’s career as a Shadow Walker for the Council of Races. Being posted to a safe house in Washington, D.C. was one step short of forced retirement–until the day Marley Weiss, a local human woman, witnessed something she should never have seen. According to Mirus law, that glimpse of their world makes her life forfeit. Once, Ian might have followed orders to take her out. But not this time.
This is a mistake.
Marley knew it. The dread that comes with a bad decision pressed down on her shoulders the moment her foot touched the cracked asphalt. Before she could change her mind, the door of the bus hissed closed behind her. The driver pulled away, taking with him the illusion of safety. Marley was left alone at the corner with the heat and smell of its exhaust, and the chill of her anxiety.
Not a valid choice anyway, she reminded herself. There was nothing for her at the next stop, or at the one after that. Sometimes she felt sick and tired of choosing from lousy options.
Marley paused to dig out her pepper spray, cursing when she found the pocket empty, the bottom seam frayed. Resigned, she curled her hand more firmly around the strap of her backpack and started walking, ducking her head and trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible. She observed her surroundings through lowered lashes, noticing everything in her immediate vicinity. She’d had years to hone this skill through her time in the foster system as a kid, and then for years afterward, when she’d been out on her own in DC neighborhoods even worse than this one. She’d honed other skills too, learning from various foster brothers how to fight dirty, make it count, get away. They weren’t skills she’d had to employ in the two years she’d been out of the projects because she’d been smart enough to be inside by nightfall, before the monsters came out.
She’d just had to go into the city proper after her shift to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. She’d spent too damn long lingering, enjoying the beauty of it, and she’d missed the Metro train and connecting bus that would have brought her home well before the sun went down. Now, here she was a mile and a half from home. With the shadows pooling between buildings and at their bases like sleeping monsters, it might as well have been light years.
She set a brisk pace as she took the long way. She could shave off half a mile if she cut through the park, but that was just asking for trouble. She passed a stretch of shops and offices, already closed for the day, and reached the first section of row houses. The farther she got from the bus stop, the more dilapidated the houses became, as if the buildings spread out from those main arteries didn’t get enough of whatever blood fueled the rest of the city to maintain their vitality. More likely, whatever restoration project was currently en vogue hadn’t had the funds to reach beyond what the public was most likely to see.
The faint squeak of her sneakers seemed to echo off the buildings, too loud in the dark. Across the street, a hoodie-clad kid, not more than sixteen, slapped palms with another guy. Money changed hands. So did a small plastic packet.
She kept her head down and pretended not to see them. That’s how it worked. Head down, mind your own, and pray they did the same.
Marley turned a corner, down a street where the row of street lights was punctuated with big spaces of dark, like the gap-toothed leer of a junkie. She hurried from one oasis of light to the next, clinging to her backpack. There were textbooks inside that she couldn’t afford to lose if someone decided to take it away from her. They were big and heavy, with sharp corners. She could use the bag as a weapon, if she had to.
At the next intersection she hesitated. The straightest route was to her left, lit by only one anemic street light. Anxiety clamped around her chest, but she kept her quickening breaths silent. Always silent. She’d learned that lesson the hard way as a child.
Eschewing the faster route, Marley kept walking. She headed up to the next block and cut over, her breath easing at the sight of sickly yellow lamps, all in a row. Almost there. She’d get inside, stow her package, and make a nice cup of tea before sitting down to work on the paper due Friday.
Her shoulders tensed again at the sound of voices. Up ahead, on the other side of the street, a group emerged from one of the row houses, laughing, joking. There were four men, passing around a bottle wrapped in a paper bag and trading the kind of profane insults that, in this neighborhood, could only be swapped among friends without leading to bloodshed. Their voices slurred, already drunk.
Marley fought the urge to move faster. Like any other predator, the two legged kind could sense fear. Better to keep her pace steady, eyes averted. She imagined a bubble around herself. Uninterested and uninteresting. Not worth noticing.
A wolf whistle rang out. Her heartbeat stuttered and began to gallop, but she didn’t change her pace. If she ran, they would chase. If she didn’t acknowledge them, perhaps they would leave her be.
“Hey baby, come join us!”
Not a flicker of response, though her breath seemed to clog up in her lungs.
“We’re lookin’ to have us a good time. Got somethin’ here with your name on it,” he said, holding up the bottle.
“Bitch, I gots somethin’ here with your name on it.” The second one grabbed his crotch and leered at her before stumbling over, laughing at his own humor.
One foot in front of the other.
The clatter of feet down concrete steps made her stumble. She closed her eyes for a moment and prayed. One hand slid into the pocket of her jacket, closing into a fist around the ring of keys, securing one of them between two knuckles. Her shoulders hunched, the movement softly thumping her books against her back.
A pair of scuffed black Converse came into view. Marley automatically readjusted her direction, trying to walk around them, but her shoulder bumped into another of the guys. Boys, she realized, looking out from beneath her lashes to catch their faces. Big ones, but boys nonetheless. The kind who would never dare speak out for fear of losing face, who would give in to peer pressure because they were more concerned with impressing each other. Always a bad combination.
They surrounded her, moving in pack formation, adjusting to the ebb and flow of her movements, invading her personal space.
“C’mon honey, we got money. We can pay your price.”
Marley felt a splinter of temper jab through her fear. She wasn’t a frigging prostitute. She’d done years of backbreaking work to claw her way up from nothing. But not that. Never that. She just wanted to go home, get off the streets. She didn’t ask to be hassled.
Her eyes were glued to the ground, measuring the passage of distance by the number of weedy sidewalk cracks, but she didn’t know how much farther until her turn. She didn’t dare lift her face and chance making eye contact in case they took that as encouragement.
“Aw baby, don’t be like that.” One of them reached out and brushed the back of his hand clumsily down her arm. “We’ll make it good for you.”
Marley’s skin crawled. The hand gripping her keys shook, the edges pressing so hard into her palm, she wondered she didn’t bleed.
The voice of Chaz, an older foster brother, echoed in her head. Keep your head, little bird. If you can’t walk away from a confrontation, don’t hesitate. Out here hesitation can cost you your life.
They were far too close for her to get up good momentum with her backpack now. A stupid, careless mistake.
A pair of dirty shit-kicker boots entered her field of vision as one of them stepped directly into her path. She stopped short; her whole body recoiled rather than allow itself to bump against him, and she stumbled back, into the chest of another delinquent who gripped her bag. “Whoa there. Don’t fall.”
“Didn’t anybody ever tell you to look up when you’re being spoken to?” A hand reached toward her face.
Marley sprang into action, whipping the keys out of her pocket, slashing toward the arm in front of her as she jammed one foot down on his instep. As the first guy started shouting, she drove her other elbow back and caught someone in the diaphragm. She barreled past a third and began to run. Pounding feet rang out behind her.
Her pulse beat frantically in her throat. She’d never make it home. She needed help. But as someone caught her bag and yanked her backward, Marley knew no one in this God-forsaken place would hear her scream.