I'm proud of this one--it's a rip-roaring chase story, packed with action and secrets.
"Robin Martine has destroyed witches all across the country, but since her confrontation with the demon Andras, Robin has had to deal with her toughest adversary yet: herself. While coming to grips with new abilities, she and her boyfriend Kenway make their way to the deserts of rural Texas, where new opportunities await.
"Something lurks in this isolated town of Keystone Hills: a dangerous gang ruled by a husband who wields an iron fist over his wife and daughter. Robin vows to protect these Latina women from harm, but may be underestimating how powerful Santiago Valenzuela is... and how his shapeshifting powers may pose a threat to everyone Robin holds dear."
To whet folks' appetite for Hellion, I'm posting an "excerpt" to my blog--this passage is actually a "deleted scene," a chapter removed from the final manuscript while we were cutting for length. Luckily, on my blog we don't have to worry about wordcount!
This deleted scene takes place before the events of the novel, in the town of Keyhole Hills where everything eventually goes haywire for our I Come With Knives protagonist Robin Martine and her beau Kenway. Here we catch up with amateur rock-climber Tracy as she ventures into the Texas badlands to commemorate a lost loved one...where she discovers the night holds more than memories.
And don't worry--there's no spoilers. Even if you haven't read the first two books, there isn't anything here to ruin them for you.
AN ANIMAL HOWLED SOMEWHERE out in the Texas desert. Tracy combed the darkness below with her penlight, scanning for the telltale sign of eyeshine from her perch halfway down the side of a mountain. Ropes and carabiners blew against sandstone like ship-rigging, thrumming and clattering. The wind blowing out of the south was damp and reeked faintly of fish.
Rain was coming, and it had ambushed her out of nowhere. One minute it was warm and dry, and the sky was shredded gauze on the brow of a purple sunset. Ten minutes later, she was below the heavy bruised belly of a pitch-black darkness. The sun became a blade of soft red light to the west, peeking underneath the edge of the stormfront as if it were the lid of a Dumpster.
Silent heat-lightning wriggled across the horizon, pink and ominous. Probably one of those windy-dirty tropical storms coming up across the Gulf of Mexico. From the looks of it, she probably had about an hour or less before the bottom fell out.
Another howl answered the first, closer this time.
Sounded strange for a coyote. None of that crying and yipping you hear from the little dog-like critters; this was full in the throat and steely, confident, a rising siren-like ooooo-oooooo! in the distance.
Tracy reached the bottom of the bluff and half-galloped, half-slid down the hill, skidding in gravel and sand.
Scraggly mesquite trees stood over her camp, a flat place in the foothills some sixty feet above the desert floor. Her tent was a two-person vinyl dome with criscrossing rods and a red raincover. Ten feet away was her campfire, a ring of stones around a pile of dead embers. Four tent spikes jutted out of the ashes, supporting a cooking grille. Her canteen cup and coffee pot sat on top of this, both with lingering traces of lunch.
She scrambled inside the tent, zipping the flap shut. Slipping out of her boots, she sat on her sleeping bag and listened for the first droplets of rain.
Digging in her pack, Tracy shined the penlight all around until she found her little Coleman battery lantern and turned it on, hanging it from a loop on the ceiling. Stark white-blue light made her shadow sway to and fro on the tent wall.
Metal glinted from a crevice between an MRE and a balled-up pair of socks. A gold ring.
The wind whispered soft threats in the mesquite over her head as she dug out her wedding band and put it on, holding it up to the light. The counterpart to this ring was six feet under a neatly-kept Houston lawn and a marble gravestone. “Wish you were here,” she said, not for the first time, and began detaching her climbing gear.
Out of the harness, she slipped into her sneakers and took the lantern. In her pack was Nathan’s knife, a wicked black tactical blade he’d bought on Amazon the summer he died. She grabbed the knife and a couple of napkins and stepped out of the tent into a swirl of rich, cool air, slipping the cold steel and her penlight into her pocket. No rain hit her palms when she held them up. Tracy made her way into the brush, dry chaparral rasping against her thighs, and put the lantern down on the sand in front of her.
Pulling her jeans and underwear down to her knees, she squatted in the darkness. Urine spattered into the sand behind her heels.
When she was done, she wiped with the napkin, balled it tightly, pulled her jeans back up, and made her way toward the remains of her campfire. She tossed the wadded-up napkin into the ashes, startling something that had been licking soup out of the canteen cup.
A brief glimpse of a sandy canine face.
She held the lantern high, just quick enough to catch a coyote’s hairy hindquarters loping into the night. “Yeah, buddy,” she called after him. “Get outta here! Nothing for you here.”
Tracy retreated to the tent, where she sat lotus-style on her sleeping bag and opened the MRE. The tactical knife lay next to her thigh. “Why, hello there,” she said to the candy waiting inside the package. As the first soft drumming of the rain began, she pulled out her little tablet and watched an old black-and-white Danny Kaye movie for a while, eating peanut M&Ms.
This would be her third trip to the Keyhole badlands since Nathan’s accident. It wasn’t the same without him, but these movies always made her feel better when she watched them out here because Nat was so much like Danny Kaye—similar face, similarly earnest mannerisms. He had a grave in Houston, but somehow she felt closer to him out here in the sticks, climbing all over the rocks and hiking the Ma’iitsoh. Since his death, their yearly constitutional had evolved into a sort of communion, a spiritual walkabout that served to push back at the stress and grief.
Her eyes were getting grainy when she heard her canteen cup rattle against the fire stones.
She unzipped the front flap halfway down and shined her penlight through the gap. A pair of doubloon eyes shined back at her from the campfire.
“Get out of here, you,” Tracy told the coyote.
The startled animal danced away, trotted in a wary circle, then came back to the campfire and resumed licking the cold soup out of the aluminum cup. Oh, what the hell. He ain’t hurting anything, she thought. She could wash the cup in the morning. “You’re being a butt-head,” she told him. “I think I’ll call you Soupy. Like Soupy Sales. What do you think of that?”
The coyote looked up at her, licking his lips, and went back to the canteen cup.
“You’re going to get rained on.”
Soupy didn’t care. He braced the cup with his front paws so that it stood up and he worked at it, his nose deep inside.
A stick broke in the darkness.
The coyote looked up from his plundered dinner, searching the brush, ears standing on end.
“What is it?” Tracy asked him. “You got some friends out there?”
Soupy glanced at her, then went back to eyeballing the night. A low growl reverberated deep in his furry body, and his hackles stood up, the fur around his neck filling out like the mane of a lion.
Rain kicked up tiny sprays of sand, beading on the dry ground.
With a snarl, part of the night threw itself into the camp, and a massive black shape with gold-green eyes laid into the coyote, knocking down the cooking-screen. Ashes clouded the air. White teeth sank into the coyote’s neck and he cried out once, a pitiful scream.
Tracy’s stomach dropped into her guts and went as cold as well-water. Vibrating with adrenaline, she zipped the flap shut and snatched up the knife.
She stared at the vinyl flap as if she could see the great black shape through it. Lights—the lights! She turned off the lantern and tablet, and the tent became a vague gray dome around her. Was that a bear? The quiet storm tapped insistently on the tent’s rainguard. There aren’t any bears out here, are there? she thought, gripping the knife. Black bears, maybe? …There are bears in Texas, I’m sure…somewhere. But here? There’s nothing out here but scrub. Sand and scrub.
Motionless, Tracy sat listening in the dark. Listening for anything—another rattle of rocks and pans, the rustle of sagegrass, anything . . . .
Fat droplets continued to tapple on the tent’s raincover, lazy, subtle pops and claps. The mesquite over her head did little to shade her from the rain, but the wind was picking up, producing a constant white noise. Tracy held the knife out in front of her as if whoever was out there might be dumb enough to throw themselves on it.
“Who’s out there?”
A face pressed against the fabric of the tent wall, casting a large smear of shadow on the gray dome. The shape breathed in the scents embedded in the vinyl—smoke, girlsweat, plastic, bacon, the mustiness it had gathered sitting in Nathan’s parents’ cellar.
Tracy scrambled backwards against the opposite wall, still brandishing the knife.
“I have a c-cellphone,” she told the face burring across the vinyl. “I already d-dialed 911. The cops’re gonna be out here in a few minutes—” All four of her phone’s service bars were gray. “Goddammit, goddammit, come on.”
Something growled behind her.
Throwing herself to the other side of the tent, Tracy pressed her body into the space where the wall met the floor and turned the knife around, blade down.
Sharp points pressed against the tent fabric where she had been sitting just a second before, and then pushed themselves through the wall as easily as a knitting needle through a sweater. Tracy shook as the claws cut slowly through the fabric from the top to the bottom, ripping a four-foot opening.
Her heart flared with adrenaline and she screamed, “WHY WON’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE?”
Pink heat-lightning. A shaggy silhouette the size of a horse leered in at her.
“You come any closer and I’m gonna stab you.”
Reaching into the tent, the shape snagged her sleeping bag and pulled it out into the night, and her tablet and phone along with it, dragging them all through the hole in the wall. Tracy turned and put the knife-point through the tent behind her, tearing open a hole and pushing herself through it. She wriggled through, squeezing out onto the damp sand as if the tent were giving birth to her.
At the last moment a claw tried to clamp around her leg, but she kicked at it. Talons ripped through her jeans, tearing into the flesh of her calf and slicing down her ankle.
She scrambled to her feet, stumbling down the hill, almost falling headlong into the chaparral. When she got to the bottom, she already had the penlight out, lighting her way with it. The road leading to the Ma’iitsoh trailhead terminated in a large dirt cul-de-sac hashmarked with tire-ruts, where her 4-Runner was parked. Electricity relay towers marched into the distance, a dozen skeletal scaffolds forming a single-file line of T-shapes against the clouds, leashed to each other by powerlines.
She had already opened the driver door and stuck a foot inside when she realized the tires were flat.
“Fuck!” she shrieked, slamming the door. “Fuuuuuck!”
Tracy pointed the penlight the way she came and saw only a vast expanse of brush and sand. The sky flashed pink for a brief instant, revealing low toothy mountains in the distance, as sharp against the clouds as black paper cutouts.
Ghostly eyes floated in the grass, faintly luminescent like a pair of will-o-wisps.
Lightning flashed again, and this time it was accompanied by a shotgun burst of thunder that buzzed the windows in their frames. Tracy pulled the next door open and clambered into the back seat. Hauling it shut, she hit the lock button and all four doors engaged with a TUNK!
Outside, the lightning continued to strobe across the sky, illuminating the trailhead parking like a rave. Tracy stared in awe and terror, her breath fogging up the window. Her heart throbbed in her neck. She wiped at the glass with a handful of napkins so she could see.
The shape stepped out of the grass.
Padding slowly and confidently across the dry dirt on all fours, it didn’t look like any Texas animal she’d ever seen before. It was long and low, and moved in a slinky, lazy way, its back drooping, each shoulder shrugging with every step. Its head was oversized and heart-shaped.
Green-gold eyes gleamed at her.
Tracy wedged herself into the floorboard and turned off the penlight. She waited, rainwater drying in her hair, gripping the knife in both hands, ready to stab again. “Shit,” she hissed in the darkness. Even if her tires hadn’t been flat, she realized, she ran off and left her goddamn car keys in her backpack, back in the tent. “You are so stupid.”
Nothing happened for a long minute.
The minute stretched into two minutes, then five. Where the hell is it? she wondered, as the soft patter of rain built into a steady drumming on the car roof. Did it give up? Did it leave? As if to answer her question, the rear end of the 4-Runner dipped precipitously and then shook, the frame groaning, the back bumper crackling and creaking as the beast put weight on it.
It was trying to get the back door open.
“Oh God, please go away,” she whispered, fingers aching, hands shaking.
Silence fell over the car again—well, what passed for silence under the constant drum-roll of rain on the roof and windshield. Tracy lay in the floorboard listening to the hollow roar, slowly relaxing, the fear subsiding, the pain in her leg fading. It reminded her of sitting in the back of her mom’s Hyundai as they went through the automatic car wash twenty years ago, pink-and-blue suds frothing across the windows.
The car-wash memory turned into a bizarre stage play about blueberry smoothies, and then it was about Thanksgiving and all the actors were from her third-grade class back in Virginia, and they were all dressed in horrible little-kid versions of cabaret costumes, like some kind of weird Moulin Rouge. Except she was twenty-seven and butt-naked on a stage with a bunch of kids, and the scenery was real, it was made up of real trees and bushes and log cabins, and when she turned and peered into the background she could see birds flying over distant fields and men on horses. And even though she was naked, she managed to pull off the play without a hitch (even though she had no lines and there was a cat wandering around the set asking for treats in fluent English, which was distracting). The audience’s applause turned into falling rain. She opened her eyes and realized she’d dozed off.
Pulling herself out of the footwell, Tracy eased up into the backseat and looked through the 4-Runner’s rear window.
All she could see was the faint suggestion of sand and dim clouds, all shredded by shadows and dappled by the rain beading on the glass. The important thing, though, was that she didn’t see the animal. Peering through every window, studying the dark desert in every direction, she couldn’t see it anywhere out there.
“Doesn’t mean it’s not waiting for me,” she told herself, lying down in the seat.
Hiding out there in the grass.
Waiting for me to come out.
The 4-Runner’s frame groaned again. The entire vehicle shifted subtly, and the sheet of metal behind the moonroof produced a musical pung! as it bent inward under a great weight.
Tracy’s heart thudded. It’s on top of the car.
Anger boiled up in her chest and she shrieked at the ceiling, “Get off! Get off my goddamn car and just go away!”
The moonroof imploded in a crash of safety glass and rainwater. A hairy claw reached in at her, tearing holes in the seatcover and ripping her shirt. Tracy screamed and unlocked the door, shoving it open.
Hooks caught in the waist of her jeans as she wriggled out of the car and fell into the mud. At first she considered hiding under the car, but there wasn’t any room—sitting on four flat tires, the 4-Runner’s undercarriage was only inches above the mud.
Crawling, and then running, she sprinted for the power scaffold silhouetted against the clouds.
The mud was already as slippery as cake icing. Her right foot slid out from under her and she collapsed, winding herself. Rolling over, she got up on her hands and knees and looked over her shoulder just in time to see the creature leap down from the 4-Runner’s roof.
Lightning flashed and the world went dark again.
Wet sagebrush raked against her jeans. The line tower creaked and the cables sang a low, trembling dirge in the wind. Behind her, heavy, pounding footfalls came rushing through the chaparral. She found one of the massive concrete bases at the bottom of a tower leg and clambered on top of it, monkeying up the steel brace.
Cold wet claws slammed into the muscle of her ass and tried to haul her backward, tearing her back pocket loose.
Fresh blood ran down her leg. Tracy hugged the scaffolding tight and kept climbing, sobbing in earnest, the storm blowing nettles of rain into her face. She focused on the climb and tried to ignore her ravaged legs. Hand over hand, her knees hiking high—this was the easiest free-climb she’d ever done, nothing like the chewed-gum handholds on the wall course back in Houston, or the precarious jagged sandstone in the badlands. The entire tower was handholds and steps, nothing but geometric angles and straight lines. Just like climbing a jungle gym in some playground. In seconds, she was forty feet above the desert. The creature that had chased her out here was far enough below that she could cover it with her hand.
Wind and rain beat the hell out of her, howling through the steel struts. Pink and blue light flickered in the clouds.
She could get struck by lightning up here, of course. But her odds were better with Zeus than with the thing currently pacing in circles underneath the relay tower. Tracy stared at the creature. It was looking up at her. Its eyes were black pits in its white face, like holes punched in a drawing.
As she watched, it folded claws over the edge of one of the concrete blocks supporting the tower and pulled itself up.
Rain needled her face. Tracy kept climbing, slow and methodical now, shuffling up the diagonal struts of the steel skeleton. Then she was halfway up the relay tower, standing on a beam and hugging another, soaking wet. The wind threatened to shove her out into empty space. She pulled Nathan’s tactical knife out and pointed it at the creature. It grinned, or at least she thought it did, a garbled thrust of flesh and fur with a wrong, cavernous mouth.
“Nice pig-sticker.” It leered up at her.
“I’M GOING TO STAB YOU,” she screamed down at it, rainwater dribbling from her lips and chin. “GET AWAY FROM ME OR I’M GOING TO STAB YOU.”
Before she could react, it leapt the width of the relay tower, flinging itself into the adjoining lattice of girders. The whole structure shook and suddenly it felt as if it were a fragile Erector set, Tinker Toys just waiting for an excuse to collapse. Then the creature threw itself back the other way and landed belly-first on the girder Tracy was standing on, trampolining it up and down. She wrapped her arms around the nearest strut and screamed in terror, her eyes squeezed shut.
When she opened them again, the thing was directly in front of her, its head easily three feet across. Green-gold lizard-eyes in a birth-defect face. Still grasping the strut, she leaned out and slashed at it with the knife, coming up short.
The creature didn’t move.
She swung at it again, clinging to the strut with her fingertips. This time the creature twitched back, almost earning a cut across the bridge of its crooked nose. Lips curling, it snarled at her, and rainwater gurgled down yellow teeth as long as her fingers.
Lightning burst across the sky, clarifying her tormentor’s warped face for just an instant. Teeth flashed in the rain as it lunged for her and she flinched away.
Her foot slipped. She dropped the knife, throwing out her hands to save herself but it wasn’t enough.
Her fingers raked across rivets and chipped paint and she fell, tumbling end over end through the ribs of the tower, banging and somersaulting, a human Pachinko. Brush and sticks snapped under her body and she hit the desert floor with an airy WHUMP, knocking the oxygen out of her lungs.
A fireball of pain twisted in her belly as her diaphragm seized up.
Raising up on her elbows, she tried to roll over and get up, but her feet seemed to be tangled in something. She choked on rain as she stared through a film of blood at her legs and realized they weren’t snarled in the brush—they were unresponsive.
Her back was broken.
The creature landed on its feet nearby with a ground-quivering thud, rustling the chaparral.
“No,” grunted Tracy, rain beading in her eyelashes. “Please.” She dragged her useless legs, clawing at rough bark and pushing wet sand with the heels of her hands, scouring her wrists and elbows like pumice.
Dry twigs crackled, parting to reveal the rain-soaked creature.
Straddling her broken body, it pressed its bristly snout against her cheek and inhaled the scent of the blood streaming out of her nose and ears.
“Why?” she asked, sobbing, rain in her eyes, in her mouth, in her ears, in her nose. The beast’s great slavering nose pressed her ear into the mud. Its breath reeked of cheap beer and rotten meat. The mud tasted like salt and nothing.
“Because I can,” the creature said.
That hideous maw closed over her face. Teeth pierced her skull. A terrific crunching noise like the planet had cracked in half.
The night rained on without her.