Australia, Present Day
Death had come calling on a windblown, wintry evening. It smashed past the dead bolts lining the front door and grabbed the living with unparalleled glee, sucking the life from them until there was nothing left but husks. Then it tore the remains apart, as if determined to erase any evidence of humanity.
Kirby hadn’t been home at the time—but her best friend had been.
Kirby stood on the edge of the porch, in the wind and the rain, and felt nothing. No pain. No anger. Not even the chill from the wild storm that had shattered the warm Australian summer.
It was as if part of her sat in a vacuum, waiting . . . but for what, she wasn’t sure.
“Miss Brown? Did you hear my question?”
The voice held an edge of impatience. She turned, vaguely recognizing the red-haired police officer who stood before her. “Sorry. My mind was elsewhere.”
On walking into the kitchen and seeing the blood spattered like paint across the walls. Or the dismembered parts of Helen and Ross, strewn like forgotten toys throughout the house.
She swallowed heavily, then crossed her arms and licked the rain from her lips. It tasted salty, like tears.
“I asked why you were late coming home tonight.” His blue eyes studied her closely. Not with suspicion, not exactly. He was just a cop being a cop, asking questions.
“There was an accident on the West Gate Bridge. It held up traffic for hours. I was supposed to have been home by six.”
If she’d been on time, death would have caught her, too. But fate had stepped in and saved her life. She wondered why.
“What time did you get home, then?”
“Eight thirty. I stopped at the KFC down the road and got something to eat.” It had been her turn to cook, but because of the late hour, she’d decided to wimp out and just grab takeout for everyone. The chicken still sat in its box, just inside the door where she’d dropped it. She wondered if she’d ever be able to eat KFC again. “I called in the murder not long after that.”
But the constable knew all that. He’d been there earlier, taking notes, when the other detectives had questioned her. She wondered what it was he didn’t believe.
He checked his notes. “And you saw nothing, heard nothing, as you walked up to the house?”
She shook her head. “Everything was dark. I didn’t even notice the door was open until I got close.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And you didn’t find that unusual?”
In all honesty, she hadn’t. She’d merely grinned, thinking that perhaps Helen and Ross had been too involved with each other to worry about mundane things like locking the front door. “Helen had only known Ross for a week. They were still at the ‘fucking like rabbits’ stage, I’m afraid.”
She wasn’t entirely sure why she’d said that. She wasn’t usually the swearing type. Maybe it was simply the need to shock the half-smug smile from the young officer’s lips.
A faint hint of red crept across his cheeks and he cleared his throat softly. “Yes, well, that would no doubt explain why the victims had no clothes on.”
“No doubt,” she mimicked, voice remote.
She stared past the emergency vehicles’ swirling red and blue lights, a cold sense of dread enveloping her. She rubbed her arms and wished she had a whisky or a scotch. Even a beer would do. Something—anything— to drown the knowledge that death stood out there, watching and waiting.
“Do you have anyplace to go, Miss Brown?”
Her gaze jumped back to the police officer. “Go?”
He nodded. “You can’t stay here. It’s a crime scene.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t thought of that. Hadn’t thought of anything, really, once she’d stepped through that door.
“Have you got parents nearby?”
She shook her head. No use explaining that she didn’t have parents at all. None that she remembered, anyway, and certainly none she wanted to find. As near as she knew, she’d been a ward of the state since birth, and she’d spent her formative years being bounced from one foster home to another. Helen had been the one permanent fixture in her life. They shared everything, even down to a birthday. They’d met in a government facility at the age of eleven, and had run away after it burned down and they’d been faced with separation again. Now Helen was gone, and Kirby was alone. Again.
She raised her face and let the rain wash the heat from her eyes. Don’t cry for me, Helen would have said. Just find the answers.
“No friends you can bunk with for the night?” the officer continued.
Again she shook her head. They’d moved into the Essendon area only a few weeks ago. She’d barely had time to unpack, let alone make new friends. And she’d always been slower than Helen in that department anyway.
“Perhaps we can book you a hotel room for the next couple of nights.”
She nodded, though she didn’t really care one way or another. The young officer studied her for a moment longer, then walked away. Her gaze fell on the door. A symbol had been carved deep into the wood—a star point sitting at the top of a circle. If there were meant to be other star points, then they were missing. She wondered if this were deliberate, or if perhaps the intruder had been interrupted before he’d finished his design. Instinct said it was the former, though she had no idea why she was so certain of this.
The police had asked her several times about it. She had a feeling they were as perplexed by its presence as she was.
She crossed her arms again and turned her back on the house. The chill night wind picked up the wet strands of her hair, flinging them across her face. Absently, she tucked them back behind her ear and listened to the wind sigh through the old birches lining the front yard. It was a mournful sound, as if the wind cried for the dead.
Helen would have called it the wind of change. Normally, she would have sat under the old trees, letting the cold fingers of air wrap around her, communing with forces Kirby could feel but never see. She would have read their futures in the nuances of the breeze and planned a path around them.
If she had talked to the wind tonight, she might still be alive.
Tears tracked heat down Kirby’s cheeks. She raised her face to the sky again, letting the rain chill her skin. Don’t cry for Helen, she thought. Find the answers. Make sense of her death.
But where to start?
Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned slightly, watching the young police officer approach. Just for an instant, her vision blurred, and instead of the policeman, it was a gnarled, twisted being with red hair and malevolent yellow eyes. It reached out to grasp her soul—to kill, as it had killed Helen and Ross. Fear squeezed her throat tight, making it suddenly difficult to breathe. She stepped back, half turning, ready to run, but then the being became the young officer again. He dropped his hand, a surprised look on his face.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Miss Brown.”
“You didn’t. I just . . .” She hesitated, then shrugged.
He nodded, as if understanding. “Arrangements have been made for you to spend the night at the motel down the road—if that’s okay with you.”
“Yeah, sure.” Where she was didn’t really matter right now. It wasn’t as if she’d be able to sleep.
He frowned slightly, as though her attitude bothered him in some way. “Would you like to collect some clothes or toiletries before you go?”
“I’m allowed inside?” she asked, surprised.
He nodded. “Only upstairs. The kitchen and living rooms are still out of bounds, I’m afraid.”
And would be for some time—for her, at least. It was doubtful whether she’d ever be able to enter the house without remembering. She rubbed her arms again, suddenly chilled. Though she was soaked through to the skin, she knew that wasn’t the cause. It was more the sense that death was out there—and that it wasn’t finished yet.
“Ready when you are, Miss Brown,” the young officer prompted when she didn’t move.
Her hand brushed his as she headed for the door. His skin was cold—colder even than hers. As cold as the dead. She shivered and shoved her imagination back in its box. It was natural for his hands to be cold. The night was bitter, and he’d spent a good amount of time out on the veranda, watching her.
She kept her eyes averted from the living room as she ran up the stairs. Her bedroom was the first on the left, Helen’s on the right. Helen’s door was open and the bed still made. She and Ross had obviously been making out on the sofa again.
Swallowing heavily, Kirby headed for her wardrobe and grabbed a backpack. She shoved whatever came to hand into it—sweaters, jeans and a couple of T-shirts—then headed over to the dressing table to collect underwear. And saw, on top of the dresser, a small, gift-wrapped package.
She stared at it for several seconds without moving. Helen had known, she thought. Or at least had sensed that she might not be around for their mutual birthday, in two days. Tears blurred her vision, and a sob caught at her throat. She grabbed the present, shoving it into the pack, then opened the drawer, grabbed a handful of underwear and stuffed that in as well.
She turned and found the young officer standing in the doorway, watching her closely. Though his stance was casual, there was a coldness in his eyes that sent another chill down her spine.
“Ready to go?” he asked, pushing away from the door frame.
She hesitated, then felt stupid for doing so. He was here to help her, not hurt her. She bit her lip and walked toward him. He didn’t move, forcing her to brush past him again. Once more her vision seemed to blur, and it was leathery, scaly skin she was brushing past, not the uniformed presence of the young police officer.
“Want me to carry that backpack for you?” he asked, reaching for it.
She stepped away quickly. “No. I’m okay.”
He frowned again, then shrugged. “This way, then, Miss Brown.”
He led the way down the stairs. Another officer, a blond-haired man in his mid-forties, joined him at the base. “Constable John Ryan,” he said to her, his voice as kind as his brown eyes. “Constable Dicks and I have been assigned to keep an eye on you for the night.”
Her fear stirred anew. “You think the murderer might be after me as well?” She knew he was, but it was not something she wanted to say out loud—as if by voicing her fears she would invite the presence to step further into her life.
“Just precautionary measures, that’s all.”
His smile never touched his eyes, and she knew he was lying. He motioned her to follow the young officer. They stepped into the wind and rain and sloshed their way across to the nearest squad car. Constable Ryan held open the back door and ushered her inside.
“It won’t be long,” he said. “Then you can finally relax.”
Relax? Knowing death was out there, waiting for her? But she forced a smile, knowing he meant well.
Constable Dicks climbed into the driver’s side and started the car. It took only five minutes to reach the motel. Dicks pulled up near the front office, and Constable Ryan climbed out and returned with the key.
The motel was L-shaped and single-story. Her room was number thirteen. Some thought it unlucky, she knew, though up until now she had never considered it so. Dicks parked the car in the room’s allotted space and Ryan got out, quickly opening the door and inspecting the room. He came back moments later and opened the squad car’s back door. Kirby grabbed her pack and climbed out.
The room was basically a small suite—there were two sofas and a couple of armchairs in the main room, along with a kitchenette, a table, and a TV. A bedroom lay to her right, with the bathroom next to it.
She headed for the bathroom. She needed a shower, needed to wash the smell of death from her skin. She wished she could do the same with her memories.
“Need anything to eat, Miss Brown?” Constable Ryan asked, picking up the phone. “I’m going to order some pizza.”
The thought made her stomach turn. She shook her head, then closed the bathroom door. Leaning her forehead against the wood for a moment, she took a deep, long breath. She wanted—needed—to be alone.
But she wasn’t, so she couldn’t let go just yet. Couldn’t allow herself to feel the pain. She had a bad habit of doing that—of repressing emotion, and not just hurt, Helen had once told her.
She dumped her backpack against the bathtub and reached into the shower, turning on the tap. The water was icy, so she let it run while she hunted around for the little packets of soap and shampoo. She found several of both in the cupboard under the sink and shoved a couple in the shower. Out of habit, she put the rest into her pack. Never waste anything had been her and Helen’s motto for as long as she could remember.
From the living room came an odd sound—a gurgling sort of cry that was quickly cut short. Goose bumps chased their way up her arm. There had been fear in that cry, and the recognition of death.
Swallowing heavily, she opened the bathroom door and peered out. Constable Ryan sat in one of the two armchairs, but he didn’t react in any way to her reappearance, and there was something decidedly odd about his posture. Something that sent a chill through her soul—a sensation that only increased when her gaze met Dicks’s.
“Something wrong, Miss Brown?”
The coldness she’d noticed earlier in his eyes was deeper, almost inhuman. She clenched a fist, resisting the impulse to slam the door shut. “Did you call out? I thought I heard someone call my name.”
The lie tasted lame on her tongue, and amusement gleamed briefly in Dicks’s blue eyes.
“Maybe you heard the TV.”
And maybe it was all in her imagination. Maybe she was finally going mad, as one of her many foster parents had insisted she would. But that parent had been a devout Catholic and had believed magic to be the devil’s work. And while she couldn’t actually raise magic—not in the same manner Helen had been able to—she could bend the energy of the air and the earth to her will. Which sounded more dangerous than it was, because in reality she could to do little more than create a net that had the power to bind one thing to another. Still, it was quite amazing that she’d lasted in that particular home for three months.
But as she stared at Dicks, she knew it wasn’t imagination or madness. Something odd was happening in the room. The feel of magic was in the air.
“I’ll just go have my shower, then,” she said, closing the door.
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