CHAPTER ONE of SENTRY'S PAST:  Veil of Darkness







This wasn’t going to be easy.  Maybe he should have thought twice before agreeing to this.Jack Monterey dug his hands into his pockets as he and Luther walked eight blocks to Nick’s Tavern.  He couldn’t recall if he’d ever been there before but that wasn’t such a big surprise. Not for him, anyway. 

The South Florida sun burrowed into storm clouds on the horizon as a stiff breeze pushed a brown curtain of hair into his eyes.  Thick humidity accentuated the tenacious smell of fryer grease and dish detergent clinging to his sweatshirt and jeans.  Luther seemed preoccupied.  It wasn’t just his silence—he never said much anyway—but the way he kept his head down, shoulders hunched, suggested that something weighed on him.  He’d obviously picked the wrong day to tell his friend about his dream.  He should just turn around, go home, and forget about it.  But he had to tell someone, and soon.  It drove him nuts.  The same damn nightmare over and over.  It had to mean something.  Just the thought of it made him queasy.  Luther was the only person who might understand.

It wasn’t quite rush hour yet, but the streets were filled with traffic.  Pedestrians riddled the sidewalks, hurrying past each other intent on their own destinations.  A man in dirty, worn-out clothes held a cardboard sign and shook a plastic jug at passersby.  Most ignored him, not even giving him a sidelong glance.  People could be so blind to each other when they wanted.  Jack pulled out two crinkled bills—the last of this week’s paycheck—and tossed them into the plastic jug.  He’d have another payday soon enough.

The tavern sat at the end of a cul-de-sac, shrouded by a clump of unkempt palm trees.  It was a square box building flanked on either side by a narrow alley, with a small window in front covered by a drawn shade.  Its stucco exterior seemed virtually colorless in the waning afternoon except for wilted morning glories growing in the cracks on its bleak façade. No billboards or marquees proclaimed its existence.  From all outward appearances, the place looked abandoned. 

Except for one thing:  a small neon sign hanging on the door--three concentric circles glowing red,white, and amber. 

Jack stopped short.  A lump of fear rose in his throat.  That sign—there was something about it.  The erratic hum and flicker of its colors made him shiver despite the oppressive heat and goose bumps prickling his skin.  Something was wrong—very, very wrong.  He shouldn’t be here.  There was somewhere else he needed to be, something he needed to do.  But what? 

The answer danced just beyond his grasp, just as it had so many times before.  Frustrated, he ran his hands through his hair and tried to ignore the anger gnawing at his gut.  It had become a constant companion to him over the last few weeks, arriving along with the nightmares, and he couldn’t shake it.  He wasn’t angry at anything in particular; the feeling was just there, like a fever that wouldn’t break.  

Luther stood by the entrance, arms folded, watching him, his cobalt eyes so startling against his charcoal complexion.  “Jack, you okay?”

He shoved his hands in his pockets again.  “Yeah, I guess.”  But was he?  His stomach curdled at the thought of going inside.  This was crazy; it was just a bar.  He usually did his drinking alone, but it wasn’t like he’d never been in a bar before.  That sign was probably for some new trendy beer.  Just a sign, nothing to worry about.  The stress of the past few weeks had jangled his nerves, that’s all. 

Luther stroked the white stubble on his chin.  “You sure?”

He was being ridiculous.  A nice cold beer was just beyond that door; what was he waiting for? “Yeah, I’m sure, I’m fine.  Just tired, that’s all.  Haven’t been sleeping too good.”

“All right then.”  Luther pulled the door open. 

The dull afternoon light pierced the room like a beacon.  A handful of people seated at the long bar turned in unison.  They stared silently at the doorway.  His goose bumps returned in full force. “Luther, I’m not sure I . . .”

But his friend marched inside. 

Jack took a deep breath and followed him into the haze of cigarette smoke.  He kept his head down as he passed the bar, feeling people watching him.  The place was eerily quiet.  No music played in the background, no televisions blared with ESPN, no pool balls clacked against each other.  The only sound came from his own sneakers squawking on the sticky tiles as he followed Luther to a small table across the room.As the sunlight receded with the door closing, everyone at the bar returned to their drinks, resuming their muffled chatter.  He sat with his back angled to the counter, his cheeks hot with embarrassment.  He didn’t like crowds, let alone crowds that stared at him.  Did everybody coming in get the same unsettling reception?  It was no wonder the place had such a grim air about it.

“Have a seat,” Luther said as he eased onto one of the wooden chairs and motioned to a stocky waitress.  “You sure you’re okay?”

He nodded, his throat too tight to answer. The waitress bustled over.  She glared at Luther, her flat face pulled into an expression more suited to a stone gargoyle.  No “good afternoon” or “may I help you.”  Not even the hint of a smile.  Luther grinned, deepening the creases in his face.  “How you doin’ today, Selina?”

She scrunched her face into a prune.  Her marble eyes darkened beneath her heavy brow.  “I was fine before the two of you came in.  What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Luther’s pleasant expression didn’t change.  “I’m orderin’ a diet Coke, that’s what.  And my friend here will have . . . ?”

Jack shifted in his seat.  “Uh, Miller.  Draft, if you got it.  Please.”

Selina swiped a strand of frizzy hair from her face. “Your friend?  Is that what you call him now?”

“A diet Coke and a Miller, Selina, if you’d be so kind.”  Luther’s smile didn’t waiver but his eyes narrowed with a determination Jack knew well enough.  Selina grunted and cast a venomous glance in his direction, then waddled away.

“What’s with her?  You know her?”

Luther waved a hand in her direction.  “Don’t pay her no mind.  She just takes some gettin’ used to.”

Jack fidgeted with a cardboard coaster on the table.  He bounced his leg, trying to burn off some of his anxiety. Luther brought up the homeless lady that had wandered into the diner before lunch and how it had been nice of Jack to give her a soda even if Gabby hadn’t approved.  Jack only half listened.  This weird little bar rubbed him wrong.  It wasn’t just Selina; the whole atmosphere of the place seemed off kilter.  Hostile, even.  What kind of bar didn’t have music or a television?  Where were all the liquor ads and pin-up posters?   Not even one declaring that Budweiser was the King of beers.  He’d been on edge to begin with and this place didn’t help.  Maybe he should have added a whiskey to his order.  At least it would have calmed him a little.  One beer wouldn’t do much to ease the tension gripping his spine.

With a huff, Selina delivered the first round and stormed away. 

Luther rubbed his chin. “You ain’t been listenin’ to me, have you?”

“Sorry, man, I just got a lot on my mind.”

“What did you want to talk to me about?”

Jack drummed his fingers on the table and watched the condensation ease down the side of his mug. Talking about the nightmare was tough—not like chatting about the weather or the latest loss by the Marlins.

“Jack?”

“I’m getting there.”  He drained his beer in one long gulp and wanted another.  Before he could ask, a solid man looking out of place in a starched shirt and bow tie strolled over.  He introduced himself as Nick St. Claire, the bar’s owner and exchanged a few pleasantries before asking for a private word with Luther.

Luther rolled his eyes.  “Order what you want.  I’ll be right back.”

“Sure, okay.”

Carte blanche at a bar—that should help trim away some of the uneasiness. After all, hostile atmosphere or not, liquor was still liquor.  He wondered if Luther would think it was rude if he shot for the top-shelf stuff.  It’d be a nice change from the rot-gut he usually drank.  Then again, Luther probably couldn’t afford the good stuff either.  The diner didn’t pay either of them that well.  It’d be good if the bar had a menu.  He wasn’t really hungry, but if he got something in his stomach, he might feel better.  With his salary, hearty meals weren’t that common.  A bag of peanuts or a Slim Jim usually did the trick, so long as he had something to wash it down with.

Selina was busy cleaning off another table and didn’t seem all that anxious to get him a refill.  Just as well; he didn’t need anymore of her lousy attitude.  It’d be easier to order what he wanted himself.

He got up, stretched some of the tightness out of his back, and wandered over to the bar, half-expecting people to turn and glare at him again.  But they didn’t.  They continued their quiet conversations uninterrupted.

What were they talking so intently about?  It wasn’t like there was a game to discuss. Were they talking about him?  No, he was being paranoid.  Still, if he leaned in close enough, he might catch a snippet or two just to be sure. 

But as he reached the counter, it wasn’t the army of top-shelf liquor bottles or the bits of fervent conversation that caught his attention. It was the mural.  How could he have not noticed it before?  The bizarre display took up nearly the wall behind the bar, an exotic swirl of colors and images that stood out in stark contrast to the gloom of the tavern itself.  The way the colors contrasted and blended was both repulsive and alluring.  He couldn’t take his eyes off it.  It tugged at him, pulled him in.  As he analyzed the intricate patterns, his insides squirmed and a shadow moved in the corner of his mind.  The ever-present anger burning his gut grumbled more vigorously.  The colors themselves twisted and undulated ever so slightly—a trick of the eyes, for sure, but fascinating.  He could almost make out a picture, but then it changed. 

A tap on his shoulder broke the spell.  He turned and faced Selina, who stood nearly toe to toe with him, barely reaching his shoulders.  She held a round tray with two half-empty beer mugs on it, and from the scowl on her face, he figured she’d like nothing more than to hit him with it.

“You’re pretty ballsy coming in here.”

He tilted his head, sure he’d misheard her.  “Excuse me?”

“You heard me, asshole.”

He gritted his teeth against his rising anger. It shouldn’t bother him so much—he’d faced much worse insults when he’d been living on the streets—but he couldn’t help it; the angst was too insistent to ignore.  “What’s your problem, lady?  You’ve been on my case since I walked in here.”

Revulsion glinted in her eyes and her knuckles bulged. “Shouldn’t I be?”

“You don’t even know me.”

“You think I’m blind?  Of course I know you.”

The swirl of fury suddenly mingled with a twinge of hope.  Did she really recognize him?  Could this nasty little bar jockey really have some answers to his questions? “Okay, you think you recognize me?  Who am I?”

“You’re a filthy piece of scum, that's who.  Shit, all you have to do is look in the mirror to figure that out.”

It wasn’t just her words that got to him, but her tone of disgust.  He clenched his fists as the flicker of hope melted in the heat of his fury. Disappointment and confusion fanned the flames into something stronger.  His heart thudded in his ears, dulling the sounds around him, and the room pulsated to the internal beat.  He should just walk away, go back to his table.  Luther even motioned to him from the back of the bar.

“Did you enjoy your beer?  I spit in it, you know.  A big hawker.”  Her lips parted in a sneer.  “I hope it was tasty.”

Her snicker was like a match touching a pool of kerosene.  His anger sprung to life, crashing through his self-restraint and devouring him with its sudden ferocity.

There was no other way.  He had no choice.

In a flash, his insides exploded.  A cry of surprise escaped him as a white-hot current nearly knocked him off his feet. Every nerve splintered and crackled when a powerful pulse of energy leapt from him and struck Selina.  She went instantly airborne.

Airborne
?  How was that possible?

The tray flew out of her hands, ricocheted off the floor and showered remnants of warm beer over several customers.  She landed in a heap against the opposite wall, knocking over one of the tables.  It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so alarming.  Selina looked stunned—and more pissed than before.  Dazed, he ran his shaky hands though his hair, now slick with sweat.  He hadn’t touched her; hadn’t even raised a finger.  At least, he didn’t think so.  Yet, against all logic, something told him that he was responsible for what had happened.   

For a moment, there was silence.  Conversations stopped and no one moved.  Then bar stools scraped against the floor as several people rose, ready to help Selina or beat the crap out of him.  Probably both.  Although he was younger than most of them, he couldn’t possibly hold his own outnumbered ten to one, especially when he was weak and unsteady on his feet. What if they all came at him at once?

A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. “I think we best be goin’ now.”

Luther steered him past the patrons, in the direction of the front door.  Selina scrambled after them, flooding the air with a caustic river of profanity. The small crowd eyed him with malice as they murmured and rustled.  A big guy appearing quite natural in his Giant’s football jersey balled his fists and looked ready to take a swing.  But Jack and Luther escaped into the late afternoon haze without any trouble.  Outside, he squinted at the relative brightness and braced himself, waiting for Selina to charge after him, accompanied by one or two of her more burly supporters.  But the entrance remained quiet, disturbed only by the sputtering neon sign. 

Beside him, Luther folded his arms and silently studied him.

He winced.  It was his fault, all his fault.  “Luther, I’m . . . I’m sorry.”

“You thinkin’ you got somethin’ to be sorry for?” Luther’s mellow Louisiana drawl always deepened when he was upset.

He wiped his palms on his jeans.  “I don’t know.  Do I? You saw what happened?”

“Yes,I did.”

“I didn’t touch her.  I swear—”

“I know you didn’t.”

How could Luther stay so composed?   What had happened in the tavern was insane.  It made no sense.  He’d gotten angry, but that couldn’t have caused Selina to fly backward like that. There had to be some explanation for it.

“She must have tripped,” he postulated.

Luther raised his eyebrows.  “Tripped?”

“Yeah, you know, then fell backwards and—”

“She didn’t fall, Jack.  She was pushed.”

“I didn’t push her.”

“Not with your hands.”

There was a nervous flutter in his chest.  He took a step closer to Luther, his legs still shaky.  “What do you mean not with my hands?  How else could I have . . .?”  He stopped as Luther eyed him like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit the last hole.  He was hiding something.            

Luther turned to walk away, but he grabbed his friend’s arm.  “Don’t walk away from me, damn it!  You know, don’t you?  You know what happened.  Was it the anger?  The dream? What aren’t you telling me?”

Luther glared at Jack's clenched hand.  “You don’t wanna be doin’ that now.”  His friend wasn’t a terribly big man—slightly taller and about twice his age—yet he had a presence that could simultaneously intimidate and inspire. 

Jack loosened his grip.  “But you don’t understand.”

“I think you got that backwards.  It’s you that don’t understand.”

This wasn’t like Luther.  Over the past few weeks, throughout his many moments of confusion and uncertainty, Luther had been the only one he’d been able to depend on, the only one who’d bothered with him.  How could he walk away?

"Luther, please,” he begged. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

His friend spun around, his eyes reflecting distress so real Jack had to take astep back.  “See, I can’t do this.  I done too much already.”

“Can’t do what?”

“I need to think.”

“Think?  Why?”

“You got to give me time.”  And with that, he turned away again.

“Luther, wait!”  This time, Luther kept walking.  Jack watched until he was out of sight,feeling somehow more alone than he had when he’d first woken up in a hospital eight weeks ago. 

The sign with its three glowing circles at the entrance to Nick’s still taunted him with a vague but powerful sense of urgency. He needed to be somewhere, needed to do something.  Whatever it was remained just out of reach.  Should he go back into the bar?  Someone might be able toexplain what had happened.  That is, if they didn’t kill him first.  Probably not a good idea.  Besides, if he had to confront that miserable waitress once more, the whole thing might happen all over again.  He couldn’t face that.  Not now. Maybe not ever.

Dull anger still simmered in his gut, nowhere near as intense as it had been before.  Could that anger really have been the cause of what had just happened at Nick’s?   No, impossible.  There had to be an explanation. More than ever, he sensed that Luther might have the answer.           

His friend would be at the Nook in the morning, flipping eggs and whipping up pancakes.  He could talk to him then, after they’d both had a chance to calm down. Things might not seem so crazy when they were viewed from the familiar confines of the back kitchen of the diner.            

With that in mind, he headed home to his shoebox apartment on the west side of Palm Cove, trying to ignore the grim feeling that by sunrise things would indeed look different, but not necessarily better.


CHAPTER ONE of SENTRY'S TIME:  Veil of Redemption





The sign hanging above the doors at Sisters of Grace Mission proudly announced they were always open to the hungry and homeless except between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and never on Sundays. Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest.

Jack Monterey shook his head. Contradicting words and behavior were just one of the many oddities of the human race that both frustrated and amused him. Every day, when he looked up at that sign, it served as a reminder of exactly how far from home he really was. But who was he to criticize? He was a walking contradiction himself.

Kicking the chock under the base of the door, he moved aside and let the throng of regulars file past him. The harsh realities of survival had taken their toll on the majority of them. Some were still new to the street, but most weren’t. A few women had small children, wide-eyed and smiling at the commotion, unaware that this wasn’t how life was meant to be.

The late March breeze carried the promise of more rain, which meant the group would be larger than usual, many hoping that Netta would set out extra bunks for the night. The crowd jostled for position as he tied on an apron, donned disposable gloves, and headed behind the counter.

“One at a time, folks. There’s plenty for everyone.”

For most who came, this was the highlight of their day. They didn’t push out of rudeness, but out of anticipation of filling their stomachs and sitting for a time in comfort, out of the heat or rain. He didn’t have to wonder what most of them went through during those insufferable hours between 7:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., nor imagine the feelings of hopelessness that plagued them every day, whether the shelter was open or not. He’d been there himself less than a year ago. For him, the other side of the counter was only one short step away, and if it wasn’t for the strength of the cage he’d forged to keep the beast at bay, he’d likely be just as much a basket case as many of the poor souls who haunted this place. Probably worse.

As the locals queued up for their meal, he settled in next to Tasha behind the serving trays. He pushed up the sleeves of his sweatshirt and shoveled mashed potatoes and chili onto plates, intentionally ignoring the emotions pulsing from the people shuffling past him. Those feelings were often so negative and dismal they rubbed him raw on the inside, like sandpaper against his own emotions. He had to force himself to tune them out or he wouldn’t have the stamina to make it through the day. How could the Spectrals find such misery to be fulfilling? It was inconceivable to him. Miserable, filthy Yäl-crèugn. They actually enjoyed the pain of others. How could any being with any kind of conscience or sense of morality see the suffering of another and not want to do something—anything—to help? But, as first-hand experience had taught him, the Yäl-crèugn had very little scruples or decency.

“Hey, dude, watch what you’re doin’!”

He started out of his musing to see that he’d plopped a glob of potatoes on top of green beans. “Sorry, Roland, daydreaming again. Can I get you a new plate?”

Roland grinned, showing a mouth that looked like a half-eaten corn cob. “Nah, s’okay, Jack. All goes in the same place anyway.”

Most of them were happy when someone called them by their name, remembering for a moment they were individuals—real people with names, faces, identities; not just worthless shells with no background or lives. He’d spent too much time in that category himself not to recognize how badly it could crush a person’s spirit, steal away any sense of hope. All the physical pain he’d endured hadn’t devastated him as much as being stripped of his own identity and self-worth. Something as simple as a name could restore that.

 He’d made it his business to learn the names of the regulars at the mission. Too many humans treated the people who came here with such abject disrespect, indifference or hatred, it was a disgrace. The damn Yäl-crèugn had a lot to do with it, but people weren’t totally blameless. An awful lot of them had an innate predisposition toward hatred and intolerance. It was one of the things that made him miss home the most. Thinking of the M’daqaëtus plane always made his gut ache in a way no torture device ever could. He had no one to blame but himself. Because of what he’d done, he’d never feel that warmth or sense of connection again. Even the small sense of purpose he’d had with Gabby, as misguided as that had been, was gone. He’d never even had a chance to say he was sorry.

“Excuse me, is something wrong?”

He snapped back to attention. A pretty young face with a smattering of freckles and hazel eyes stared back at him. His stomach lurched as a shudder ran through him. He didn’t recognize the face, except that it didn’t belong here, among the grisly beards and toothless smiles. It belonged in a high school somewhere, casting shy glances at the football jock sitting across the lunchroom or smiling as she tried out for the cheerleading squad. Not here—not among this mess.

 His flesh crawled as the hairs on the back of his neck bristled with a deep sense of foreboding and anxiety. The sbŷgon-nëiff—the Black Surge—occurred whenever Spectrals were around. Unseen and unheard, but present nonetheless. Were they here? Around this girl? His breath came short and shallow as anger pushed forward at the thought of Spectrals hovering so near. Whether real or imagined, he swore he could smell them sometimes, their dank, fetid odor firmly entrenched in his mind, a constant companion to all those memories of pain.

“Are you trying to starve the poor girl?” Netta O’Connell asked. She stood at his elbow, her fists on her hips, silver eyebrows knitted tightly together, a look most people who knew her took very seriously. Old enough to remember when Palm Cove was just a South Florida swamp and as thin as a blade of grass, what she lacked in stature, she made up for in passion. She had the tenacity of a pit bull on steroids when she sensed something was wrong.

He hadn’t realized it but he was standing stone still, his arm poised with a ladle of potatoes dangling precariously over the girl’s plate. His cheeks grew hot with embarrassment. How preposterous he must look. They didn’t have a clue about the Spectrals; they couldn’t understand what an awful feeling it was to know those invisible monstrosities were here, just out of reach, waiting for a chance to ruin lives.

He lowered his eyes and tapped the potatoes into a neat mound next to a pile of green beans. The girl huffed and went into the dining area. As soon as she walked away, the Black Surge receded.

“What was that about?” Netta demanded, a testament to her taking no crap—not from clients, volunteers, and certainly not from the hired help.

“You know her?” His hands shook when he served the next person in line.

“No. Do you?”

“I … don’t think so.”

“Then why the hell were you staring at her like that?” “Like what?” “Like a damn wolf ready to swallow her whole.”

A bony Latino in a tattered suit and tie snickered at the comment. Jack resisted the impulse to fling a scoop of potatoes at him. “That’s ridiculous. I was just staring because … I don’t remember seeing her here before.”

“She’s too young for you. And we don’t put up with our people making plays for the locals.”

“What? Plays for … I wasn’t … it was just …”

But Netta stormed away, getting ready to clean up and set up the bunks for those who normally stayed the night, and perhaps a few extra.

The girl sat by herself at the far end of the dining hall. When she looked up, their eyes locked for a second. He shuddered. Were they here? If so, he should still feel the full force of the sbŷgon-nëiff. She wasn’t that far away, but he didn’t feel it, and nothing had happened to suggest that the Spectrals were present, preying on her or anyone else. His hands trembled like they’d used to right after he’d given up drinking. What was it that had brought the Black Surge on? Did he know her from someplace? His memories had pretty much returned since what had happened at Nick’s Tavern nearly six months ago, but her face wasn’t among them. 

A warm hand patted his arm. “You okay?” Peggy O’Connell’s eyes, the color of meadow grass at sunrise, danced with concern.

He couldn’t help but smile. Her sincerity reminded him of Luther. She always seemed to know when someone needed a kind word, a bit of advice, or just a pat on the arm. Although she and Netta were twins, they couldn’t be more opposite in temperament. Netta stomped around like a drill sergeant, making sure everything ran like clockwork at the mission, but Peggy made every effort to give it that personal, homey touch to lighten the hearts of the regulars.

“I’m fine. Just a little rattled, that’s all.”

 “Oh, don’t let ol’ Netta get to you. Fact that she huffs and puffs like that just means she cares.” She smiled, every wrinkle on her face beaming.

He had the urge to give her a hug but wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. Humans hugged at such odd times and for varying reasons, it was hard to figure out. He patted her hand in return, glad that his no longer trembled. “Thanks, but she doesn’t really bother me. After two months, I’m used to her.”

“Good for you. I think you’re doing a fine job. And so does Netta, although she’ll never say it.” She gave him another reassuring pat and went off to make sure everyone had gotten their dessert—made by her, as always.

When the last of the line had been served, he wiped his hands on his apron and wandered into the dining area. Dish cloth in hand ready to wipe off the tables, he was determined to find out what was up with the mystery girl. She was still here, pushing her green beans around with a plastic fork. He sauntered over to the table next to hers and began wiping it, keeping his head down, his eyes on the cloth.

She stared at him. He could feel it, as clearly as he could feel the fear and regret coming off her in steady bursts. Regret he could understand. Everyone in this place carried a truckload of regret: for how they’d gotten here, what they’d done, what they’d failed to do—too many reasons to count. Regret seemed to be a constant state of existence for many people, and in that regard, he fit right in. But the fear puzzled him. What was she afraid of? She was in no apparent danger that he could see. No one bothered her. Maybe it was the Spectrals. Maybe they were around her after all, planting thoughts in her head, instigating her to do something that inspired this fear in her. He didn’t smell them and the sbŷgon-nëiff hadn’t returned, so maybe they weren’t here. She didn’t seem violent or self-destructive. When a person was under the Spectrals’ influence, they usually acted erratically. She seemed composed enough.

 He edged a little closer, focused on the table but concentrating on her, trying to get a sense of what she was all about, why she’d provoked the Black Surge. The sbŷgon-nëiff was an unpredictable ability that had only recently re-emerged. He’d experienced it only twice so far; once, prior to a knife fight outside the Flamingo Diner, and then right before some guy had jumped in front of a bus. He’d recognized the sensation almost immediately, a safeguard shared by all Sentries. His was sporadic, at best, diluted by his transformation. But what good was it if he couldn’t see Spectrals? In both instances, it had been too late to do anything. He focused more intently on the girl’s feelings. The source of the sbŷgon-nëiff was still there; he could sense it, just not as strong as before.

She stood up so abruptly that she knocked her tray in the air, scattering beans and fruit punch across the table. “Did you want something?”

He took an involuntary step back. “Me?” Stupid response. Who else would she mean? “I … uh … I’m just cleaning up. It’s part of my job.”

“You have a whole dining room to clean up and you decided to start here?”

 She was entirely too loud. Others stared at them. Was this how she normally acted or were there Spectrals influencing her?

 “I … it’s my routine. I kind of follow a pattern. Start here, work my way around—”      

“Spare me. You think I’m dumb?”

Shit, Netta was coming over. He was in trouble now. “Okay, look, I didn’t mean anything. I just wanted to talk to you.”

 “Talk to me? Why? You some kind of pimp or pervert or something?”

“No! Listen, it’s not like that. It’s just that you don’t look like you belong here.”

“What, I don’t fit the homeless profile?”

“No, you don’t. You fit the runaway profile.”

She flinched. That was it, the source of her fear. She was a runaway; she was afraid of getting caught. But there was more; her fear went deeper.

Netta came up on them, her hands on her hips again and the furrowed look deeper than before as she assessed the scattered mess. “What’s going on over here?”

“Nothing,” he began before the girl could jump in. “I was just trying to talk to her.”

 “Why?”

“Because she’s by herself, not one of the regulars. I was concerned.”

“Concerned? Is that so?”

“I don’t need anyone to be concerned about me.” The girl’s freckles were more pronounced on her red cheeks. “Does he hassle everyone like this?”

 “I wasn’t hassling you. You’re the one who threw your tray at me.”

“That’s ’cause you were creeping me out. And I didn’t throw it at you. It’s your fault I knocked it over.”

“All right, both of you, that’s enough. Jack, go clean those tables over there. We’ll discuss this later.”

“Discuss what? All of a sudden I’m not allowed to talk—” He stopped. The hardened look on Netta’s face suggested that he should just shut up. This job didn’t pay much, but it was enough to live on, and he got free meals. Since The Nook had shut down, his prospects for employment were pretty slim, which meant he was in no position to argue.

He flung the dish rag over his shoulder and headed toward the opposite side of the dining room, not giving them so much as a backward glance. That’s when he heard them.

The sound of the hisses and screeches stopped him dead in his tracks and set his insides on fire. He’d heard them in his dreams too many times to count. All the nightmares that had intruded so often upon his waking hours had been infected with those nerve-jangling shrieks and raspy whispers. Still, even with the emergence of the sbŷgon-nëiff, the voices of the Spectrals had always been confined to his mind. Until now.

The clamor he heard wasn’t a dream. Not a memory or hallucination, either. The voices were real. And they were near. His muscles tensed as anger flooded every crevice of his being. The dining area disappeared in a fog as he focused on the sound. They weren’t around the girl as he’d suspected; they were outside, in the back. In the alley, by the Dumpsters. Of course. Spectrals liked hovering around rotting garbage. The stench reminded them of home. The beast rattled its cage. Images of Gabby rolled like a boulder through his mind. Another alley, another time. An unspeakable sight that made him want to rip his eyes out so he didn’t have to see it again. But it was carved into his brain, there forever as punishment for what he’d done.

The squeals and shrieks became even more insistent. They drowned out everything except the double-time rhythm of his own heart. He knew what they were saying—understood exactly what they were doing. Legs shaking, he raced to the back door. When he burst into the alley, a steady rain prickled his skin and cast a gray curtain over the area. He expected to see them hovering over Gabby, jeering at him, laughing at the agony they caused, but Gabby wasn’t there; Peggy was. And Roland. The good-natured local with the corncob teeth had Peggy up against the wall, his hand over her mouth and the same knife she used to slice the pound cake pressed against her neck.

Her blouse was ripped, exposing her bra. Her eyes radiated a tangible terror that washed over him like ice water. For a few seconds, he couldn’t breathe and the alley seemed to sway under his feet. Peggy … why Peggy? Could they tell he liked her, cared about her? Was that why they’d targeted her? He had to help her. The air was thick with the disgusting odor of Spectrals. Even the fat drops of rain couldn’t wash away the stench.

Their squeals influenced Roland, telling him what to do, insisting that he do it. He couldn’t see them, but he heard them, and the imprae-vis came to life inside him. It grew with such vigor, he could barely contain it. Careful, he had to be careful. It was one of the few abilities he hadn’t locked in the cage because he could still control it. If he allowed it to have free reign, it could destroy everything in its path. Right now, he had to maintain that control or all the lessons he’d learned and the hours of practice it had taken to hone this skill would amount to nothing. He had to do this the right way. He forced himself to concentrate on his center of calm. The prϊagyth was another tool he’d learned to use as a M’da-Atrë and it could work in this case. Hopefully. Roland turned his head and met his eyes.

Were the Spectrals staring at him, too? Formless eyes glaring at him through shadowy sockets? The thought nearly sent him over the edge, back to the days when the imprae-vis had dominated him, when he hadn’t been able to access the prϊagyth. He sucked in a deep breath, ignoring the stench in the air, and focused on his inner self. Calm. He had to stay with the center of calm.  

“Roland,” he said, his voice soothing and composed, betraying none of the angst brewing within him. Eh’lis would be proud. “Put the knife down. Let her go.”

Roland grinned, but the earlier good nature he’d shown was gone. Instead, his was a smile full of malice and lurid desire. His voice was tight and unnatural, his sparse hair matted down by the rain. “Get out of here or I’ll kill her. I swear!”

Panic threatened and the imprae-vis churned impatiently. He steadied himself against the nauseating memories, refusing to acknowledge them, and latched onto the prϊagyth. He pushed it forward when he spoke calm and steady. “You don’t want to do this, Roland; it’s wrong. You don’t want to hurt Peggy. She’s a good lady. And you’re a good person. Consider the consequences.”

It was like hitting a stone wall. The Spectral influence created a powerful barrier in Roland’s mind. Roland pressed the knife against Peggy’s neck, scoring a thin line across her skin. His insides screamed with the compulsion to leap forward. He could save Peggy and snap the son of a bitch in two.

No! Control! He had to stay in control! The Spectrals came directly at him then, seeking to ply their influence into his mind, trying to make him join in the game, drag him into their plans. There had to be at least three of them to do that. He swallowed hard at the gorge in his throat. All those times they’d gotten into his head, crawled into his brain like hungry maggots, eating away his resolve, his sense of self, his very soul—never again. Never again would he give them that power over him, force him to commit despicable acts. Things were different now. He braced himself against their influence and blocked their efforts, shutting the door to his mind.

Twitters of surprise rippled through the Spectrals. Humans generally had little or no power to resist their influence, but he wasn’t completely human. Did they sense that? Did they know who he was? They spoke to him, not through influence, but through direct communication. You shouldn’t be here. You’re interfering with the way things are meant to be.

Their words echoed from his past and his response was nearly automatic, spoken in a language they surely understood. “You’re wrong. The rules have changed. I have the power now.”

They twittered again, this time with confusion. It was now or never. The Spectrals’ influence was all around Roland, an invisible force holding the man’s hand fast, keeping the knife in place. It didn’t matter; he was stronger than they knew. He grabbed a part of the imprae-vis—not too much—and let it loose, concentrating on the knife. A flash of energy leapt from him and plowed through the thick cloud of Spectral influence. Roland’s wrist snapped back and the knife flew away, clattering at the far end of the alley. Roland yelped and grabbed his arm.

He charged at Roland, knocking him to the ground, away from Peggy. Roland scrambled to his feet and ran full tilt down the alley, into the steady rain, wailing about his wrist. He should go after him, but Peggy was more important. The Spectrals were gone, scattering amidst a hail of threats as soon as he’d released the imprae-vis. At least, he believed they were gone. He couldn’t hear them, and the only odor that remained was the wet garbage fermenting in the Dumpsters.

His breath came in short spurts, trying to keep up with his galloping heart. “Are you okay?”

Peggy put her hand to her neck. The wound wasn’t deep, just had barely broken the skin. Still, she gasped at the blood on her fingers. “Oh, God, I don’t know. I’m … I’m bleeding, I think.” She tried to adjust her ripped blouse to cover herself.

“Come on, let’s go inside, get you fixed up.”

The rear door was locked from the inside. Peggy shook all over and her skin was ice-cold. He untied his apron and draped it over her shoulders, then led her toward the front entrance. Damn Spectral scum. They always preyed on the most vulnerable.

“I … don’t know what came over him,” she stuttered. “He’s always been so nice, so quiet. He offered to help me take out the trash. I didn’t think he’d ever do anything like that.”

“He probably didn’t think he would, either.”

“How did you do what you did? With that knife. It flew right out of his hand.”

He’d hoped she hadn’t seen that, but, of course, she had; she’d been right there. “I threw something at him. Must have hit his wrist. Lucky shot.”

“Threw something? Like what?”

“A rock”

“A rock?”

“From the ground.”

“I didn’t see you pick anything up.”

“Sure I did. It was right by the door.”

“You must have one heck of an aim. That knife went flying, and the way Roland was yelling—”

“The important thing is that you’re all right.”

“I just don’t know what got into him. It was horrible, like a bad dream.”

 “I know.”

They reached the front entrance, where she paused to stare at him, her matronly eyes filled with emotion. “Thank you, Jack. That was very brave, what you did. You’re an angel in disguise.”

The words stung. He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Believe me, Peggy, I’m no angel.”

“You were today.”

He ushered her inside. One of the volunteers ran over, calling for Netta. Netta came through the kitchen door in full attack mode but stopped when she saw Peggy. Her pale complexion turned even whiter as she rushed over, calling the name of every saint on the Catholic roster, plus a few she’d probably made up. Peggy told a rushed version of the story and tried to dismiss the whole thing as nothing, but then broke down in heavy sobs.

Jack sat on one of the benches, weak and shaky inside and out. It wasn’t just the after-effects of controlling and releasing the imprae-vis—although that certainly had taken its toll—but the thought of what would’ve happened if he’d obeyed the rules and hadn’t taken any action. He couldn’t even think about it. Just the idea made him want to explode.

No doubt, he’d shaken things up by what he’d done. There’d be consequences. But what should he have done? Sit by while that sweet woman was brutalized? No way, not on his watch. It would have happened eventually. Prior to this, he’d had the impression that he only flew under the Spectral radar; or they were biding their time with him, waiting to see how he would react to this new life they’d forced on him. Now he might have drawn the attention of both Spectrals and Sentries. Eh’lis had warned him not to interfere. But even back then, he’d known it would be impossible to sit idle. That’s probably why Eh’lis had been so pissed with him. Part of the reason, anyway.

He might have called forth dire consequences and was now destined to meet an untimely end, like Luther had before him, but a whisper deep inside told him that wasn’t exactly true. He’d thought a lot about the Vow of Noninterference and its validity. The questions he’d raised, the doubts he had, were another reason Eh’lis was probably avoiding him.

“Tom called the police,” Netta said, choked with emotion. “You’ll have to give them a statement, Jack.”

He nodded absently. It had been a while since his last chat with a pair of officers at the hospital, and speaking to the police again was pretty low on his list of things to do.

 “I don’t know what I would’ve done if anything had happened to her,” Netta said. “She’s … well, she’s … just, thank you.” Netta turned and walked away before he could see the tears she was fighting.

He knew how she felt. He’d experienced losing someone close himself. Like everything else, the blame for that fell on him.

The tremors of Netta’s emotions wafted through the air, along with Peggy’s. Fear, disbelief, sadness, relief—a mixed bag of feelings, all familiar to him. But as they bounced against him, they suddenly combined with another sensation—one that hadn’t been there before but was now somehow entwined with the other tangible sentiments emanating from those around him. His mouth went dry.

This new sensation was familiar, but he hadn’t experienced it in a while. He’d hoped to never experience it again. The dread inspired by its abrupt return was just as potent as it had been months ago, and he grabbed the plastic seat to steady himself.  The Balance was in jeopardy. Again.