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Familiar Magic

Kathlena L. Contreras
The Land of Enchantment 1

Familiar Magic cover- Kathlena L. Contreras

Something is devouring wizards.  And Amethyst Rey has just discovered she’s next on the menu.

Amethyst is being stalked. Odd gifts appear on her doorstep. A black Mustang lurks in front of her house. But when the car—minus a driver—snatches her off her Albuquerque street, Amethyst is plunged into a hidden world of magic where no one can be trusted and nobody is quite what they seem.
As she struggles to hold on to her normal life, an ancient spirit pursues her, warning of magic grown toxic and dangerously unstable by the disappearance of wizards. A homeless man mumbles about a predator that drains wizards of power, leaving behind tormented shadows. Amethyst had better learn to use her untested wizardry before the predator catches up to her—if the magic doesn’t explode and destroy the world first.

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Prelude

He waited by the curbside, blind and deaf to the city life around. People sensed rather than saw the strangeness in him. Two chatting mothers with babies in strollers moved closer together and watched him from the corners of their eyes. A jogger puffed by, stared and ran on. Bicyclists glanced at him and away.

A skater glided down the hill, her ponytail swinging. One outflung hand brushed him, a fleeting touch across a sleeper’s face.

Awareness flooded him, welling up from depths of oblivion.

He explored the edges of himself. Age had touched him, but that he could repair. He yet remained strong, implacable steel. Or when he wished, slippery shadow. He focused his attention outward.

He flinched and almost withdrew again. Magic seethed, corrosive as a toxic sea, chewing at the edges of reality. It was worse, much worse than before, chaos ready to engulf the world.

Yet there was the grit of pavement beneath him, the sharp, high-altitude sun on his body, the city that unrolled, foothills to mesas to winding river then back up again to a line of low volcanoes on the horizon. He scanned his surroundings—street, whooshing traffic, the squat blocks of apartment buildings, all ordinary, solid, sure. Then his attention fastened on her, the skater. He forgot everything else.

Latte macchiato skin. Dark hair bound at the nape of her neck. A swimmer’s build, slim enough to appear taller than she was. Her head turned, showing a face not pretty, but pleasant to look upon.

And the very fragrance of soul he had been waiting for.

Exultation surged in him. He moved to catch her—

Then stopped himself. It was hard, hard. He yearned to savor the taste, revel in the brilliance of that soul. To make her his own. After so long…

After so long, he could wait a bit longer. But only a bit.

She reached the corner, swung onto the path that followed the boulevard. Budding desert willow and grey-green chamisa screened her.

He waited a moment more then stirred himself, fire and thunder, then the cough of his breath, the crackle of small stones beneath him. He moved to follow the skater. Close, but not too close behind her.

 

Chapter 1

The rumble of a big-bore engine echoed up the street. A sound like that didn’t belong in a quiet Albuquerque neighborhood, among the little pueblo-style houses with their flat roofs and small, high windows and stucco walls. It didn’t belong with new spring leaves, the Juicy Fruit scent of Spanish broom, the perfume of lilac, the mutter of grackles.

At the moment, Amethyst Rey was more interested in what was in the mail. Her skates leaned against the post and she stood in her socks by the mailbox cluster, sorting through envelopes.

Bill. Bill. She didn’t even want to look at those. Credit card offer? No thanks. Sorry. Ah—finally! The check from Mrs. Blakely for the job she’d just finished—a series of dining room clerestory windows depicting mesas and clouds in stained glass. Amethyst tore open the envelope.

The engine fell silent and she looked up.

There it was again! That car! Past the Wesley’s tidy sweep of gravel dotted with juniper and the stiff, prickly arms of cholla cactus, past the Griego’s defiant green lawn and two enormous elms, it crouched black as a curse at the curbside in front of her house.

She waited for the car’s door to open, the driver to climb out. No one did. She leaned down to pick up her skates.

An odd, silvery prickle scuttled across her skin, as if someone watched her. She jerked upright, looking for…whoever it was. The sidewalks were empty, the front doors closed. No face peered through a window, no one stood within the shadow of a garage door. So who—?

The car still sat there two houses down, silent, waiting as she waited.

Waiting, hell. She stuffed the mail in the back pocket of her jeans and strode toward her house—and the car. Time to let this individual know that people in this neighborhood kept an eye on things.

The car was some kind of classic, probably older than Amethyst—Mustang, she decided. One in perfect condition, the sort of thing a middle-aged man would spend hours waxing, reminiscing about days of big, throaty engines and admiring girls. Not a vehicle that would blend in, if someone were up to no good.

Sunlight slid along the car’s gleaming black body. The dark-tinted windows seemed to regard her, like a man’s appraising stare behind blackout sunglasses. An arc of dash showed through the windshield, the curve of a seatback.

No driver? She’d looked around the moment the engine had shut off. So was he hiding in the back seat, or what?

A shudder stroked down her back, but she set her jaw and kept walking. No front plates in New Mexico, so she had to go a little past her driveway to see the car’s tail end. The plate was the old, bright red-on-yellow one with the yucca in the corner. It read TALYS.

A lot of good it did her. It wasn’t like she could call the cops and complain that someone had been parking in front of her house for the last week. She didn’t own the street. Still…

She strode up her cracked driveway to the walk, past pansies struggling against the still-chill high-desert nights. She stopped short on the front porch and dropped her skates.

A pomegranate rested on the doormat. It hadn’t been there when she’d unlocked the door two minutes ago.

She took a step back. No, no, no. There was no way this could be here—this…this gift. Another gift, these strange little offerings she’d been finding on her front porch. The big, shiny acorn with the cap still on. The keychain—no keys—with a wand-shaped fob of clear plastic filled with floating, multicolored stars. An issue of Car and Driver magazine, a few months old and a little battered around the edges.

She swallowed the little flutter that started in her throat. Another gift, but who had left it? And how? And why?

Although she had a pretty good idea what the gift-giver drove.

She clenched her fists. It was broad daylight. This was her house. Damned if she’d let someone keep playing these games with her. The pomegranate was going right back where it came from: to whoever was driving that car.

She scooped it up and headed back down the walk.

“Amethyst, hola!

She jumped, but it was only Oscar Griego from next door.

He met her on the section of sidewalk between their driveways. “Hey, you okay? Did I scare you?”

She forced a laugh. “I’m fine, Oscar. I just…” Against her will, her eyes slid to the car.

“Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that,” he said, following her gaze. “Sixty-nine Mach One. Woo! New boyfriend?”

“No! It’s…uh… No.”

Boyfriends were painful and complicated. Work and friends filled the days much more comfortably.

He grinned, showing a silver-capped front tooth. “Bueno. Gary’ll be happy. Mama told him he don’t stand a chance against the guy who drives something like that.”

‘Mama’ was an accurate term for Oscar’s wife. She even tried to mother Amethyst: What was a nice Spanish girl doing living all by herself? And with a young man like her son Gary right next door! Amethyst didn’t even have to go visit her own mother in San Cristobal to get quizzed on her love life. Or more accurately, the lack thereof.

She cupped the pomegranate as unobtrusively as possible. “So…have you seen who drives it?”

Oscar shook his head. “No. Mama hasn’t, either.” He gave an apologetic shrug. “And she’s been looking.” He spun his car keys around a finger and frowned. “Why? Trouble?”

Was there? What was going on here, anyway? Was she being stalked?

Sure, like anyone would want to stalk a skinny, not-much-to-look-at computer geek turned stained glass artist.

The pomegranate prickled in her hand, round and mottled red and about as innocuous as the one the Lord of the Underworld had presented his kidnapped Persephone. Just a taste, my dear. No strings attached, upon my word…

“No trouble as far as I know,” she said. “I just wonder why someone keeps parking in front of my house.”

Oscar grunted thoughtfully. “Mama’s been saying your new boyfriend must be a brujo.” He used the Spanish word for sorcerer. “Since she never sees him. So now she’ll be happy too. No brujos hanging around next door.” He opened his pickup’s door. “Time to go fight with the VA. When you see this guy,” he tipped his chin at the Mustang, “make sure you send him over. I’d sure like a chance behind the wheel.” He climbed into his pickup and with a wave, drove off.

Amethyst waved back. A brujo. Thanks, Oscar. The supernatural as an alternative to a stalker.

The skittery, nervous feeling returned, as if something ominous prowled just beyond the light of her everyday life, and all she could perceive of it was the pad of a soft footfall, the gleam of a reflective eye.

She gave the pomegranate a disgusted look. It was all stupid. Gifts. Unseen watchers. And sorcerers only existed in stories. She would not stand here shivering like a kid after a scary movie.

She set her teeth and took the few steps to the curb. Quickly, she reached across the car’s hood to place the pomegranate just behind the scoop. Her thigh pressed against the fender.

Images swarmed into her mind: streets filled with old cars that weren’t old at all, a man with a black terrier trotting by his side. A woman in a long, old-fashioned dress reading a book by firelight, stroking the black tomcat draped over her knee. The cat’s eyes glinted silver through half-closed lids. A girl feeding a bit of apple to a mynah bird on its perch. Its bill, instead of yellow, was silvery-white, and it said in its croaking voice, “Amethyst—”

She jerked back and dropped the pomegranate. Thump! It struck the hood and rolled off.

Amethyst shook her head hard and backed away, rubbing her thigh. Her heart tried to crowd up her throat.

The car sat quietly. The door didn’t jerk open, no angry voice demanded to know what the hell she thought she was doing. It was obviously—impossibly—empty.

Impossible. Just like the pomegranate. Like that sense of being watched…

When there was no one to watch her.

Amethyst took a step backward, then fled into the house.

* * *

Amethyst tucked the old plastic bowl on one hip, reached for the back gate latch, then hesitated. Through the gate’s splintery boards only a slice of tumbleweeds and the concrete block wall on the opposite side of the alley were visible.

This is ridiculous, she told herself. She hadn’t seen any sign of the black car since yesterday. There was no reason to get all twitchy.

She dropped her hand from the gate latch. “Caramela,” she called.

Nothing. Then a rustle on the other side of the block wall, coming along the alley. She tensed, listening. At last, a whine outside the gate.

Amethyst took a breath and pulled the gate open.

A caramel-colored pit bull looked up at her. She wagged so hard everything behind her shoulders wiggled, and her wide, pink mouth stretched in a grin.

Amethyst rubbed the dog’s ear and peeked up and down the alley. No car here, at least. So far.

She let out the breath and crouched to give the dog a good petting. “I think it’s time you come live with me, Caramela. What do you think?”

Caramela wagged and panted, more intent on the affection than on the food in the bowl beside Amethyst. The dog’s hip bones no longer showed, the xylophone of her ribs was less pronounced. Her big, blocky pit bull head looked like it fit her body better. She was still greasy and dirty, though, and smelled. The pink patch just above her nose was sunburned.

Amethyst picked up the bowl again and stood. “Well, come on in.”

Caramela’s head drooped. She still wagged, but it was an apologetic, regretful sort of wag now.

“Not yet, huh?” Amethyst sighed and set the bowl just outside the gate. Caramela dived on it. Amethyst waited the twenty seconds it took for the food to vanish then rubbed the dog’s ear again. “I have to go now.”

Caramela looked up at her. When no more caresses were forthcoming, she turned and trotted back up the alley, past other back gates, piles of grass clippings, tree trimmings and cardboard boxes. Finally, she pushed through a gate hanging askew a few houses distant.

The rumble of an engine echoed between the walls. Amethyst jumped and wrenched around. The alley remained empty, but traffic winked past the end, two blocks down. Must’ve just been a delivery truck on Eubank. She shut the gate and headed back to the house.

“You shouldn’t be feeding that dog,” an old voice said. “It’s gonna kill somebody’s pet. Or even a kid.”

Mr. Meadows scowled at her over the block wall that divided their backyards. The top buttons of his shirt were mis-buttoned, and his thin hair stood up in back. La-Z-Boy hair, Amethyst privately called it. The sound of spattering water rose from the other side of the wall. Mr. Meadows watered his yard a lot, especially when a neighbor was outside.

Amethyst sighed again. She really should raise that wall, but… Well, Mr., Meadows would say something about unneighborliness and how folks had visited over this wall for the last fifty years and what was wrong with people now that they felt they had to shut their neighbors out and what were they up to they had to hide, anyway?

Maybe stuff like feeding neglected dogs.

“She’s a nice dog, Mr. Meadows. And nobody else is feeding her.”

“Then call the pound. That animal shouldn’t be wandering around, anyhow. It’s a public menace.”

“No, she’s not. And calling the pound isn’t a good idea.”

“When I—” Mr. Meadows began, but Amethyst cut him off.

“I’m late, gotta go, sorry. Have a good day, Mr. Meadows.”

“Don’t even have a proper job,” he muttered behind her. “How can you be late?”

* * *

“You’re late,” Melodie Jarret said. Her arms were crossed over a University of New Mexico Lobos sweatshirt with the arms torn out, her light brown hair piled on top of her head in a silly-looking fountain of a ponytail. “I’ve been standing here baking in this parking lot when all those nice, cool trees are just over there.”

She tossed her head in the direction of the Rio Grande River and its bordering cottonwoods, their leaves flashing white undersides in the rowdy spring wind.

Amethyst opened the rear door of her little Isuzu SUV. “I had to feed Caramela. Sorry.”

Melodie came and leaned a hip on the faded rear fender of the Isuzu. “If you’re that worried, why don’t you just keep the dog?”

Amethyst threw up her hands. “Same reason I don’t call Animal Control! The owners are the kind of people who’d rob you and trash your house to show you how unhappy they are that you took a dog they can’t bother to care for.”

Melodie studied her. “Hmm. Twenty minutes late when it takes maybe five, tops, to feed the dog. And grumpy, not like you. What really happened, Wiz?”

Wiz. The nickname coiled like a bad meal in her gut today.

Amethyst snagged her skates from the forward end of the cargo area, where they never failed to slide. “Nothing.”

She wasn’t about to say, There was this pomegranate, and this car, and the car was parked outside all yesterday afternoon, and all night, too… She slipped off a sneaker, worked her foot into the skate.

“Just… I don’t know. Too much glass, I guess. Too much time home alone, working.”

Melodie’s eyes went round. “Did you say, ‘Too much glass’? Is that what I heard you say?”

Amethyst sighed silently and fastened the skate straps. Melodie’s needling was usually fun. Not today.

“You’ve had your days when you don’t feel like convincing some Luddite the new software won’t eliminate her job. Well, I get tired of work sometimes, too.”

“Not you. Never.” Melodie shook her head, and the silly fountain of hair bobbed. “It’s all artistic rhapsodies, about how turning pieces of broken glass and strips of foil into something beautiful is like magic.”

“I never said—”

“Yes, you did. ‘Magic.’ That’s just the word you used.” She sniffed. “And this from the woman who left everyone in UNM’s IT department in the dust, from the precocious junior hackers to the pocket-protector graduate geeks. Miss Wiz.”

A little one-sided smile tugged at Amethyst’s lips. “Is that jealousy I hear? You should be happy I switched to Fine Arts, then, so you could shine. You never had a chance, otherwise.”

Melodie propped fists on hips. “You don’t think so?”

“Not a bit.”

“Well, lock your truck, honey, because there’s a reason when we take to the trail together, you wear skates while I depend on my own two feet.”

More cars were trickling in. A pregnant mom waited while another woman unfolded a stroller and settled her child into it. Across the lot, a curly-haired man in jeans and boots and a shirt that said Just Rope It backed two horses out of a trailer. The horses thumped along the trailer floor, then clopped on the asphalt, looking around, ears perked and interested. The guy was cute. If she had the nerve, the horses would be a good excuse to go over and try to strike up a conversation. Melodie would even play along.

Amethyst turned away and slammed the rear door.

A flash of reflected sunlight caught her gaze. Glossy black paint. The glitter of chrome.

She snatched the key out of the lock. “Let’s go.”

Melodie’s grin went out like a popped light bulb. “Wiz, what—”

Amethyst didn’t take the time to put the keys away in her fanny pack. Fisting them, she skated toward the rustic-looking posts that marked the trail entrance.

She sped across the bridge spanning the riverside drain. Metal girders and brown water flashed past. The cottonwoods lining the river rose ahead, furrow-barked, spring-green leaves quivering against a vibrant blue sky. She swung onto the paved path on the ditchbank above the tangled vegetation of the bosque.

The car couldn’t follow her here.

But the driver could. And she didn’t know what he looked like.

Melodie sprinted along not far behind. “Wiz, wait!”

Amethyst did a neat turn and stop. “God, Mel, I’m sorry.”

“What happened?” Melodie panted.

Amethyst flicked a glance back, along the path, across the bridge. “Nothing. I just thought—” She unzipped her fanny pack, dropped in the car keys. “Nothing.”

Still panting, Melodie caught her arm, pulled her along the path. “You don’t—light out—for nothing.”

“Mel—”

Her friend dropped onto to a bench. “Sit down. Tell me. Something’s really spooked you. And you don’t usually spook.”

Clumping awkwardly on the skates, Amethyst sat too. She pulled a water bottle from her fanny pack, but just gripped it with both hands.

The riverside drain—the irrigation canal that paralleled the river—ran between the trail and houses’ backyards. The full socioeconomic spectrum was on display there: equestrian stables, ponds and gazebos separated by fences and screens of elms or poplars from dirt yards, tumbleweeds and junked cars. The Sandia Mountains loomed beyond the house- and treetops, five thousand feet of sheer granite rearing above the mile-high heights of Albuquerque.

Amethyst’s mouth was dry. She took a sip of water, swallowed, but the dryness came right back. “I might be— I’m not sure, but it seems—”

Melodie tugged the bottle away, drank and wiped her mouth. “Just tell me.”

It was going to sound so stupid. “I think I’m being stalked.”

Stalked?” Melodie looked back along the path, then at Amethyst. “By who?”

Not, are you sure, but, by who? Melodie’s faith in her judgment made something in her middle untwist.

She hitched one shoulder. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him.”

“But then how—”

“Somebody’s been leaving…things…on my front porch. Nothing much, just junk, but…” She threw up her hands, frustrated. “The wind couldn’t have blown them there, and—”

No, she’d better not say anything about how the car, even unoccupied, seemed to watch her. About the visions that had come when she touched it.

“And? What?” Melodie said. “Calls? Letters?”

“Nothing like that.” She hesitated. “But I think I’ve seen someone following me.”

Melodie studied her. “And you saw that someone pull into the parking lot?”

Always perceptive, was Melodie.

Amethyst clenched her hands together. “I thought so.”

“But you were sure enough to take off like a cat with a stepped-on tail. What’s he driving?”

“Something black. Old.”

“Old and black. Now there’s a description to go on.”

Amethyst sat back and folded her arms. “It isn’t like I can call the cops or anything. What am I going to say? ‘Officer, someone has been leaving threatening pomegranates on my doorstep. You’ve got to stop him before he leaves a watermelon.’”

Pomegranates?

Amethyst bit her tongue. “Never mind.”

Melodie put a hand on her arm. “Pomegranates.”

“I told you it was just stuff. But when was the last time you saw a pomegranate in the grocery store?”

For that matter, where did that big, fat acorn come from, when the only acorns you’d find around this part of New Mexico were those little bitty ones from the scrub oaks up in the mountains?

“Maybe they ship them up from Chile.”

“Sure.” And the acorns, too.

“No unstable boyfriends I wouldn’t know about?”

“Oh, right. I’ve left such a trail of broken hearts behind me.”

Melodie pressed her lips together in impatience. “Okay, okay, let’s not go into the old whine about how little use men have for smart women.”

“You can’t talk. You got lucky with Marl. Lawyers like someone who can challenge them.”

Melodie had been dating Marl Odham for something like three years now.

“You’re the one who won’t let me hook you up with one of his associates,” Melodie said.

“I’m trying to save Marl the embarrassment of hearing how the date went.”

Melodie rolled her eyes. “Since you’re smart, I’m sure you’ve considered that someone’s playing a joke on you.”

Suddenly, the conversation was no longer fun. “If they are, the joke is almost as scary as a stalker. Way, way too elaborate.” Amethyst smoothed a finger along the hem of her shorts. “I don’t know, Mel. Something about the whole situation is really strange.”

“Stranger than a stalker?

Amethyst took a drink to avoid answering.

Melodie wasn’t one to tactfully drop a subject. “So what’re you going to do?”

Sighing, Amethyst pushed to her feet. “Right now? Go for a skate. Finish that atrium window for the DeBacas. Start going in and out exclusively through the garage door. Or maybe through the back gate into the alley.”

“You don’t sound as worried as you should be,” Melodie said.

Amethyst shrugged. “It’s crazy, that somebody could be stalking me. Look at me.”

She spread her arms. About the only thing she had going for her was the dark, rich fall of her hair, and her eyes: violet in sunlight, dark indoors. Her dad had named her for those unusual eyes long before it became obvious she’d grow into anything but a jewel.

“I mean,” she said, “who’d bother?”

Melodie didn’t dignify that last comment with a reply. “So what’s the alternative? You’re imagining things?”

“Thanks, Mel. You’re such a comfort.”

Melodie flicked away the sarcasm with toss of her head. “Maybe you were right the first time, and you’re just tired, or stressed. Maybe you need a change of routine.”

This sounded an awful lot like the beginning of another get-back-into-the-computer-field-you’re-wasting-your-talent lecture. But she loved the glass, loved her independence.

Melodie scowled. “Don’t look like that. It’s not what you think. I was going to say that Bree is singing in the youth opera tomorrow.” Bree was Marl’s oldest daughter. “You don’t even have to dress up. We can stop and have dessert afterwards. It’ll be fun.”

A chance to think about something other than this crazy car business couldn’t hurt. And Bree was a nice kid.

“Mmm,” Amethyst said. “You and Marl won’t shout and whistle from the stands this time, will you?”

“Please. Are you going to come, or just stand there and be snide?”

Amethyst gave a little curtsey, though her skates didn’t entirely cooperate. “I thank you for your gracious invitation. I shall be delighted to join you and your gentleman friend at the opera Friday night.”

Melodie tilted her chin up. “We are honored by your condescension.” She stood and tightened her ponytail. “Now come on. If somebody’s really stalking you, let’s make him work for his twisted pleasure.” She jogged off along the path.

Amethyst wouldn’t look. Shewouldn’t.

Her head turned. Two bicyclists in wraparound sunglasses and helmets like weird-colored alien skulls hunched over their handlebars. They didn’t look particularly threatening.

If she really were being stalked, did it make sense to get too far from her friend?

Amethyst pushed off, fast enough even the cyclists didn’t catch her.

On the return trip, she eyed the nearing bridge for signs of suspicious-looking loiterers.

Melodie puffed obliviously beside her. A few strands escaped from the ponytail stuck to her cheeks and neck, and her sweatshirt was damp down the back and under the arms.

The parking lot held nothing more frightening than a large, noisy group of grade-school kids on a field trip. If they’d come hoping to see the bald eagles or cranes, she suspected they’d be disappointed. Anything mobile would remove itself before the kids came within a half a mile.

Amethyst unlocked the Isuzu’s doors and opened them to let out the heat. She sat on the cargo bed to pull off her skates.

Melodie sat beside her. “Listen, Wiz. You may not be able to call the cops, but you can call me if you need to. Or Marl. You have his number, don’t you?”

“I don’t think Marl would appreciate—”

“Call us. Either one. Or both. You’re not the sort to have the vapors.”

Amethyst let go a breath. “Thanks, Mel. That’s really—that means a lot.”

“I’m serious. Should I ask Marl to pull some strings somewhere? See what can be done?”

Amethyst hesitated. Maybe. But what if the whole thing turned out to be harmless?

“That’s okay. I’ll call. If it’s necessary.”

Melodie nodded. “Good. See you Friday.” She ambled off across the parking lot.

Amethyst took off the other skate and peeled off her socks. Melodie was the best. If anything really was wrong…

She closed the rear doors and tiptoed barefoot across the hot pavement. The car couldn’t possibly be anything as outrageous as a stalker. And the silly little gifts were likely a kid’s prank.

She slid into the driver’s seat. She probably only thought she’d seen the same car pulling into the parking lot earlier this morning. After all, she hadn’t stuck around to get a really good look at it. For all she knew, it might’ve been one of the new retro-styled Mustangs, and not the one from in front of her house at all.

She checked the rearview mirrors for pedestrians or oncoming cars, fumbling at the ignition with her key. A glint of color snared her eye.

On the dash, resting in the angle of the windshield was a large marble. It looked as if it were made of crystal. Purple crystal. Amethyst.

Light leapt from flaw to flaw in the crystal. Cold stalked across her scalp and down her back.

The doors had been locked. She remembered the click of the lock when she’d turned the key. There was no way this could’ve gotten in here. No way—

Unless someone had the skill—or a master key—to unlock her truck, carefully place the marble where she would see it, then just as carefully lock the door behind him.

 

 

Chapter 2

“So what’s this we’re going to see?” Amethyst said.

She sat with Melodie in the semidarkness of the theater thumbing through a program, trying to pretend everything was normal. Well, actually, everything was normal—right now. No car. No gifts. Yet.

“It’s called Mayhem and Malarkey,” Melodie said. “It’s for kids, a conglomeration of fairy tales. A comedy. You should see Bree, though.” She laughed fondly. “You’d think she’s performing at the Santa Fe Opera.”

Amethyst summoned an answering smile. Even with an extended family about as large and close as any old Spanish clan in northern New Mexico, kids were a foreign tribe as far as she was concerned. Teenagers were a little more comprehensible than most. At least you could carry on a conversation about computer gaming with them.

Most of the couples around her looked in their thirties and forties—Marl’s age, old enough to have teenaged kids. Lots of kids in the audience, too, probably siblings and classmates of the performers. She didn’t see anyone who looked like a stalker—whatever a stalker would look like.

Sighing—well, more like breathing again, after having held it too long—she sat back in her seat again. The obligatory red curtains hid the stage.

“Where’s Marl? And Jenna?” Jenna was Marl’s younger daughter.

Melodie gestured behind them. “Jenna’s back there, with a couple friends. Thankfully.” Jenna was at the goofy, giggly age. “Marl is backstage with Bree. She’s singing a lead part.”

Thinking of Bree’s long, coppery hair, Amethyst said, “They wouldn’t type-cast her as Red Riding Hood, would they?”

Melodie only gave her a withering look.

People shuffled in their seats to let Marl pass. Melodie smiled at him. He gave her a quick kiss and sat down. His thick, reddish-brown hair was forever falling in his eyes, and he swept it back now with a practiced gesture. “I think I have her convinced that she won’t squeak on the high notes.”

Melodie squeezed his hand where it rested on her knee. “She’s her father’s daughter. She’ll be perfect.”

Marl was a nice guy, gentle and steady and good for Melodie. They really ought to get married, but maybe Melodie was worried about his two daughters, about becoming a stepmom. Or maybe Marl wasn’t ready yet—he’d lost his wife a few years ago when a bullet from a gang shooting went astray. Or maybe—

Maybe she should just mind her own business and let them work it out for themselves.

Amethyst busied herself with the program in her lap. A Wizard’s Journey, it said amid a framework of ornate scrolls. She pushed out her lower lip. Didn’t sound like the right program. Marl and Melodie still had their heads close together in conversation. She opened the program and looked for a date, but couldn’t find one.

The Players, said the first page, and she scanned down the list, searching for Bree’s name. Talys – The Familiar; Koro – The Old Wizard; Harreken – The Young Wizard; Chauncy, Meredydd – The Lost—

Certainly the wrong program, from some play far more Tolkienesque than what Melodie had described. But it was something to look at until the curtain came up. She settled back into her seat.

Welcome! the text began in a large and fancy font. Prepare yourself for a journey beyond your imaginings, a journey into wonder and adventure! Discover within yourself power and potential of which you never dreamed. Dive beneath the dull surface of the commonplace to immerse yourself in the vivid depths and vital currents of magic.

Amethyst turned the page.

You fear the unfamiliar, but that is to be expected. Trust that the unfamiliar shall become the familiar, your Familiar, your other half, the expression, direction and refinement of your power. I am Talys, and I have waited long and long for you.

Talys. Where had she seen that name? And why did it give her such a bad feeling?

A scattering of notes came from the orchestra pit as the musicians warmed up. She turned another page.

Magic is grown disused and forgotten, to the impoverishment of the world. And to its peril. For the magic grows wild, volatile, dangerous. But in a world that scorns sorcery as superstition and mocks magic as madness, whose power will calm the coming storm? Who will find and face the hunger that drives it?

The license plate. The one on the Mustang. That was where she’d seen that name. How could it possibly be printed here, too? Her fingers, suddenly damp, dimpled the paper. She turned it over.

You will, Amethyst Rey. Do not fear. Come to me.

Amethyst slapped the program shut and jammed it between her seat and Melodie’s. Startled, Melodie turned to her. Over her shoulder, Marl’s mouth was open, his lips still shaping a word.

Melodie touched her arm. “What’s wrong, Wiz?”

Amethyst pointed down. A corner of the program poked up from between the seats, taunting her.

Melodie followed her pointing finger and drew out the bent and crumpled booklet. “What happened to this?”

Amethyst’s voice wouldn’t come for a moment, then it did. “Read it.”

Melodie looked as if she were unsure whether to be worried or amused. “’Mayhem and Malarkey.’” She opened the cover. “’The Players.’”

“Turn to the fourth page,” Amethyst said. “What does it say at the bottom?”

A worried line appeared between Melodie’s brows. “’We would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions—‘”

“No,” Amethyst interrupted. She grabbed the program. “Look right here. It says—”

It said just what Melodie had read. Other people’s names. Not Amethyst’s. The world tilted and the booklet fluttered to the floor.

She struggled to her feet. “Where’s the ladies room?” She had to get herself together. The program drew her eye, sentient and jeering.

“Why?” Melodie said. “Amethyst, are you okay? Are you sick?”

Marl rose. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

He stood there tall and grave and gallant in his sport jacket and narrow tie. God. She must look like a hysterical idiot.

“That’s okay, I’m fine. I just need to splash a little water on my face.” At his doubtful look, she gave a shaky laugh. “Really, I’ll be fine.” Just as soon as driverless cars stop chasing me and opera programs stop addressing me personally. She kept her mouth closed.

Marl held out his hand. She took it, a warm clasp of reality. Why couldn’t she find someone like this? Well…probably because she couldn’t bear the process of looking. The discomfort, embarrassment and outright terror.

“I’ll be right back,” he said to Melodie, then led Amethyst past the shuffling, muttering people to the aisle.

“Stay and watch the play. I’ll be fine,” Amethyst said again. “Just point the way.”

He hesitated, then said, “Through the doors, to the left, just before the lobby.”

Amethyst squeezed his arm and continued alone. The aisle stretched ahead, patterned carpet lined with tiny floor lights. She wobbled a little on unaccustomed heels. The teenaged usher eyed her as she pushed through the doors, maybe suspecting her of desertion. She went through into a hall lit by frosted sconces that spilled semicircles of soft light on fawn-colored walls. Two women came toward her, chatting and making small adjustments to their clothes. They didn’t seem real. When opera programs started talking to you, what was real, and what wasn’t?

In the lobby ahead, people stood in well-dressed, murmuring groups. The darkness outside the glass entrance doors reflected distorted images. Shuddering, she turned away, looking for the restroom.

Then she was in the parking lot, under tall sodium lights gleaming on rows of parked cars.

Amethyst stumbled to a stop. The theater lay a long walk back, lights gleaming like a distant haven. Mary, Jesus and all the saints in heaven, how had she gotten here?

Suddenly shaking, she started walking toward the safety of lights and people. Her heels made small tappings on the asphalt, carrying her forward into the alternation of darkness and pooled orange light.

Night wind slithered cold along her calves. What had she done, sleepwalked? Gone into a trance? She couldn’t possibly be so stressed—so distressed—as to aim for the bathroom only to end up in the middle of the parking lot. She raked one hand through her hair. God. Was she going crazy?

“Hey, babe.”

Her heart tripped, then stumbled all over itself.

Him. The stalker.

She spun, dry-mouthed, blood roaring in her ears.

Three punks, saggy-pantsed, hoodie-shirted, stood grinning like caricatures in the faint light. A grey glitteryness shivered at the edges of her vision.

“Hey, I’m talkin’ to ya. Where ya goin’?”

Damn, damn, damn! She forced herself to breathe, to speak. “Back,” she said with a curt nod and started walking again, toward the beckoning theater. Don’t hurry. Head up, walk, listen behind. Look strong, not like prey.

Footsteps followed, heavy and unhurried. Crude words were bandied amid unpleasant laughter.

Fine. This was the game: Let’s Terrify a Lone Woman. Instinct told her to run. Reason told that was the worst thing to do. The long, full folds of her broomstick skirt tangled around her legs, but she kept walking, ignoring the hoots and rude calls behind her.

Light flared, splayed her shadow across the asphalt ahead of her. Stark eyes of headlights silhouetted the punks behind her, rimmed them with a white glare. A big-bore engine coughed to life, then gave a dragstrip howl. Tires squealed and the lights lunged forward.

The headlights grew, and the engine snarled louder. Her muscles locked, shorted out, disconnected from drive. The punks yelled and scattered, cursing, shouting threats. Move, she told herself. Stupid, move. But she didn’t. Couldn’t. Her mouth tasted of rusty metal.

In a skunky haze of burned rubber, the car screeched to a stop. The long, black hood gleamed like Death’s river, scoop gaping in the middle. Amethyst could have touched it if she raised her hand. The grille was a dark maw. The windshield watched her, a depthless eye of night.

She knotted her hands in her skirt and shook. Concern, reassurance…came from somewhere. She tottered backward, on the edge of breaking into a run, then caught herself.

The punks—

Nothing nearby but asphalt and cars, but they couldn’t have gone far. The Mustang rumbled at her knee.

Her head abruptly went around like she’d topple over where she stood. She flung out a hand, and her fingers touched something solid. She leaned against it, resting her face on her forearm until the world stopped rocking. She raised her head, found herself braced against the car’s roof and snatched her arm away.

The car waited, muttering. Maybe the punks did, too. She took a few trembling steps.

The car crackled over the asphalt, keeping pace with her. She tensed, ready for the driver’s door to swing open. But it remained closed. Even the driver’s window stayed rolled up. Why didn’t he get out, at least roll down the window and ask if she was okay?

“What the hell do you want?” Her voice shook, not the sneering challenge she’d meant. “Why don’t you just—” leave me alone, she almost said. Except being alone hadn’t been—still wasn’t—a good idea.

She could cut through the ranks of parked cars and ditch the nutcase driving the Mustang. But she stayed to the middle of the aisle. In the light, easy to see if anyone was looking.

Like an oversized Rottweiler, the Mustang grumbled along at her side all the way to the theatre entrance. She glanced back once through the lobby doors, but it didn’t drive away.

She still shook, and was now sick to her stomach, too. She took some deep breaths, finally made it to the restroom to wipe her face and neck with a damp paper towel and wobbled her way back to the dim theatre.

“Where have you been?” Melodie whispered as Amethyst lowered herself into her seat. “You’ve missed almost all of the first act!”

On stage, a tall young man in thigh-high boots sang, one hand on chest, the other dramatically upraised. Amethyst took a long breath. She leaned close and whispered, “I went outside and walked around for a while. Just to get some air.”

Melodie eyed her. “You don’t look good. Do you need to go home?”

Home. Was she any safer there? Was anywhere safe? “No, thanks, I’m fine, really.”

Melodie didn’t look convinced.

“Just—a little tired, I think,” Amethyst said. “I really do want to hear Bree sing. I hope I haven’t missed her.”

Melodie shook her head. “No, but promise to tell me if you change your mind.”

Amethyst squeezed her friend’s hand. “I will.” She was glad it was too dim to see the open programs the people beside her held.

When the house lights came back up, she was also glad she wasn’t required to recite the storyline. Or, in fact, do anything more challenging than agree that, oh, yes, Bree had a wonderful voice, and yes, she looked quite the diva in that costume.

Everything still seemed strange, off-balance. Every thought, every action had to be carefully pre-planned. She ached to tell Melodie about what had just happened.

Had the stalker parked his car and followed her into the theatre? Was he here, now? He might be the tall, heavyset kid with the Bluetooth clipped over his ear, or the man in the navy blue suit and combover intent on the screen of his iPhone. He could be anyone. She forced herself to stop staring suspiciously into faces. After all, she was with other people, one of them male, and the stalker was probably smart enough to keep a low profile.

She couldn’t keep herself from peering through the doors as they crossed the lobby, but the only vehicles pulled up at the curb outside were an enormous SUV and a minivan.

Marl held the door. A cluster of girls in long dresses preened and fluttered for three good-looking young men who stood on the sidewalk. A little distance along the theatre’s front, angry voices echoed.

The punks from the parking lot crowded like sheep around two police officers. Pointing and waving their tattooed arms like overwrought actors, they now seemed no more than blustering kids.

“I’m tellin’ ya, the sonofabitch tried to run us over! We was just hangin, y’know what I mean, man? And he tried to run us over!”

One of the officers made quieting gestures and spoke in a low tone.

One of the punks said, “It was somethin’ old. And black. A Camaro or somethin’ like that. Real old, but in good shape. Shiny, y’know?” The numbers “505,” central New Mexico’s area code, were shaved onto his scalp, pale in the dark fuzz of his hair.

Amethyst stopped herself from grabbing Melodie and saying, Listen! They saw it too! No. Definitely not. But if she joined the group and added her version of the story to the mix, along with a proper description of the car… That might take care of both kids and car.

Melodie took her arm and tugged. “Come on, Wiz. Coffee. A great big slice of pie, remember? The fun here is over with.”

One could only hope.

The parking lot stretched ahead, rows of innocuous cars and vans and mile-high pickups washed to monochromes by the orange glow of sodium lights. Amethyst pulled her sweater tight. Parents and youngsters plunged heedlessly into the chilly spring night. Safety in numbers, right?

“Where’d you park?” Melodie asked.

Amethyst pointed. “Right over there, by that light standard.”

The night chill insinuated itself through the inadequate knit of her sweater.

Cars idled past, headlights drawing their shadows long and then short on the pavement. Behind them, Bree and Jenna teased and giggled.

They came to where she’d parked her Isuzu. Amethyst stopped with a click of heels on pavement.

Red plastic taillight fragments littered the asphalt. The bumper was pushed up under the shattered rear window, into the cargo area. Both rear wheels tilted at painful angles, and one tire was flat.

Swallowing shouts and curse words, she walked the length of the vehicle. Doors sprung. Hood buckled. Oil and radiator fluid pooling on the pavement like blood. Front bumper wrapped around the light standard.

Bree’s eyes were huge, her hands pressed over her mouth. Jenna clutched her dad’s arm.

“Oh, Amethyst,” Melodie finally breathed and hugged her.

The shout and curse words deserted her. “I quit carrying full coverage insurance on it last year. It’s too old. It wasn’t worth it.”

Thin lipped, Marl said, “At least the police are already here. I’ll go get in line.” He stalked off, back toward the theater.

Melodie slid her free arm around Jenna and jiggled Amethyst’s shoulders. “We’ll take you home when you’re done with the police. Get a good night’s sleep and call me in the morning when you get up. I’ll run you around wherever you need to go.”

Amethyst stared down at the florescent green fluid by the toe of her shoe and nodded. It was all she was good for at the moment.

 

 

Chapter 3

“Wizzzzzz,” a voice whispered.

Amethyst shot upright in bed, fingers clenched in the covers. Her bedroom curtains billowed, and the pages of the paperback on her nightstand fluttered. Her heart fluttering much the same, she gusted a breath.

The wind, risen as it sometimes did at night, hissed through the gap in the casement. Tomorrow would also be windy, probably—no surprise for spring in the Southwest.

She flipped back the covers and got up, rubbing her arms. The wind plastered her pajamas to her body as she cranked the casement closed. The backyard was sketched in the ghastly orange glow of streetlights. An overgrown lilac bush loomed dark against the pale concrete block wall enclosing the yard. A gust of wind flicked a scrap of paper like a small, fleeing ghost.

Something crashed in the alley beyond the back wall. A dog began barking, wild, snarling barks.

Amethyst stopped mid-crank. Caramela? The barking came closer, staccato bursts connected by long rips of snarls, right on the other side of her back wall. Then a dog’s screaming wail of pain.

She yanked out a robe and grabbed the baseball bat she kept in a corner of the closet. She ran down the hall for the dining room and the back door, belting on the robe with sharp little tugs.

The wind nearly slammed the door into her face. She hefted the baseball bat and surged out into the backyard. Her hair whipped around her head, and the robe ballooned threateningly. The bat slipped in her sweaty grip. Taking a firmer hold, she hauled open the back gate.

The alley was a wind tunnel. Scraps of paper, even small boxes scuttled like rats, vague in the glow of a distant streetlight. A tree hung a blot of darkness over the pavement a few houses down.

“Caramela?”

Amethyst caught her hair, dragged it back out of her face. She’d heard a dog. Not in someone’s backyard. Here, right behind her own. And she knew that bark was Caramela’s—she’d heard her barking and howling often enough in her own yard, hungry, lonely and neglected.

Amethyst stepped a little farther into the alley, shading her eyes against the streetlight’s gleam. Twigs and grains of sand peppered her. A gust whipped her hair stingingly into her eyes. The gate banged closed behind her.

She whirled and pressed a hand to her chest. With a breathy little laugh, she pulled the string that unlatched the gate from the outside.

It snapped, dropping the latch into place again. A frayed length of string hung useless in her hand.

Cursing would do absolutely no good. She’d still have to scramble back over the wall, or else hike around the block. In the middle of the night. In a windstorm. In her robe and slippers. She felt like sneaking over to Caramela’s gate, just to peek in and make sure she was all right, that she hadn’t fled in pain to the only home she knew. But not like this.

The alley was lower than her back yard, so the wall here rose well over her head. Amethyst leaned the bat against the wall and backed up to get a running start.

A full-throated growl sounded, as if from something large and predatory. Her heart kicked her breastbone. Taillights in triplicate flared in that overhanging tree’s shadow. Walls and weed-invaded pavement suddenly glowed a lurid red. Then tires squealed and the lights lunged toward her.

Amethyst leapt for the wall. One hand hit the cold, rough surface of concrete block, the other, the top of the gate. Splinters drove into her fingers and she fell back again. The taillights, red and glaring, were almost on her. She snatched at the bat, but it clattered to the ground and rolled away. She ran.

The rumble grew louder. The stink of exhaust choked her, breathed hot on her legs. A fender eased alongside, barely brushing her hip. She dodged against the wall. In that awful, endless moment came the distinctive clack of a car door opening, then the door jostled her, swept her up.

Her head and back knocked something hard. She gave a strangled scream, landed wedged upside down. A door thumped, and the rush of the wind ceased.

She struck out. Her fists met air, a seat, her feet a padded door panel. No one spoke. No one grabbed her. Somehow, she righted herself, scrambled up.

The driver’s seat was empty.

Instrument lights glowed green on the inside of the cabin. The steering wheel nudged itself left and right. The engine quaked with a cement-mixer growl. She gasped, unable to get enough air, wrenched at the door handle. It lifted, but the door didn’t budge. She threw herself across the center console into the driver’s seat, yanked at the driver’s door handle. Nothing. Nothing. Locked in—pull the damn door lock, Amethyst—but it wouldn’t pull up, the doors wouldn’t open, the window cranks were frozen.

She clenched her hands in the nubby fabric of her robe and collapsed back into the seat. The shift lever moved of its own accord from reverse to first, then to second. Beyond the windshield, the alley scrolled by. Piles of yard trimmings squatted, broken glass sparkled in the headlights.

Reality shuddered and collapsed. No human stalker lurked to kidnap and rape her, just a car, only a car, alone, undriven, lying in wait to lure her out and snatch her up into some impossible craziness. She hugged herself, trying to steady her breathing, forcing herself to think.

It was just—had to be—remote control, servos, cameras, some techie’s idea of a twisted joke. If she had the money and equipment, she could rig up something like it herself.

A laugh escaped her, one that teetered on the edge of hysteria. A sicko techie stalker was better?

She pulled the sleeves of her robe over her fists and hammered at the dark-tinted window.

A sense of presence stole over her, smoothing the edges of her terror, murmuring calm in a subliminal whisper. Just like in the theatre parking lot—

Amethyst spun to look in the backseat. Empty. A street now slid slowly by outside, quiet houses and parked cars as remote as a scene in a movie. She turned forward again, gripped the wheel and planted both feet on the brake. The wheel moved under her hands, but to its own impulsion. The brake pedal might have been welded to the floorboard.

“Let me out,” she said, and her voice came out high and thin. “Or do I have to reach under the dash and start ripping out wires? Or maybe—” She caught a breath. “Maybe a few fuses will do it.”

She twisted around under the wheel. The sense of soothing warred with her fear. No one—no one—else was in this car. No one to be aware of her. No one to soothe her. She wouldn’t look again, because if she did, she’d only see—

The pitch of the engine changed. The brake and clutch pedals depressed. She fumbled under the dash. For an instant, she felt as if someone took her hand, gently.

She snatched her hand away and thrust herself upright. Her knees knocked hard on the steering wheel. “Let me go!”

The car eased to a stop. With a click, the driver’s door swung open.

Amethyst tumbled out, staggered to catch her balance on a driveway. The wind still blew, tangling her hair in her face. She wanted to be home, safe in her own bed, where all of this would turn out to be just a dream. She stumbled backward. A line of low bushes snatched at her robe, raked her legs. A house, dark and blind, faced her. She reeled.

She stood at the edge of her own driveway.

The car’s deep-voiced engine abruptly fell silent. The wind rushed, whistled through wires, jangled the low chain link fence around Mr. Meadows’ front yard. She backed into the garage door with a thump. It rattled as she edged along it.

Heat radiated from the car’s grille, warm against her cold flesh. Lit by the Halloween glow of the streetlights, the Mustang gleamed like black water, quiescent now as a car should be. But from somewhere, she caught a sense of rueful amusement.

Amethyst bolted. The gate by the garage burst open, spilling her into the side yard. The back door was unlocked—she’d only shut it behind her.

She groped at the back doorknob, flung open the door and slammed it shut again. Fingers shaking so hard she could scarcely control them, she locked it behind her.

 

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