Negative Return —> An Excerpt


The seedy underbelly of the Durga System is back in Negative Return, which follows young bounty hunter Manu Juric on a mission that starts out shifty as hell . . . and quickly tumbles downhill from there.

Manu’s in trouble and weaponless but for his quick tongue and winning charm. They’re what’ll keep him alive — unless they get him killed, first. 

I’ve enjoyed being in Manu’s head more than almost any other character I’ve written so far. So I’m very excited to share this book with you!

Negative Return will be released June 28. But if you want a sneak peak, I’m sending out review copies to my advanced reader crew now.

If you like high-stakes sci-fi adventures about witty underdogs, Negative Return is for you. 

Interest piqued? Learn more about Negative Return here. Or scroll on down to get a preview of the first chapter.

Happy reading!

Negative Return [Chapter 1]
Negative Return Cover

The lounge singer is in over his head.

He has a decent voice when he stays in the right register, Manu Juric thinks, but every song he’s chosen tonight has been a challenge — a touch too high, the notes fraying around the edges. The Bronze Room is too cheap a bar to filter it through an autocorrect unit.

Manu’d chip in to buy them one, but he’ll never get invited back after what he’s about to do.

The singer’s crooning in a mismatched suit, his hair and makeup done expertly but cuticles scuffed and shoddy, nails flaking underneath the cheap lacquer. Not just overreaching his vocal chords — he’s overreaching his league.

Manu tipped him anyway, earlier this evening, his tagged one-mark token tumbled in with all the others in the jar.

Manu’s drinking whiskey, the bar’s cheapest over plenty of ice to water down the flavor of engine oil. He’s sipping it slow, taking his time, and already he’s starting to get looks from the bartender.

Nobody nurses shitty whiskey at the Bronze Room. The bartender is one poorly sung verse away from calling his boss and reporting his suspicions.

Manu knocks back the whiskey, tags the bottom of the glass, then raises a finger to the bartender. The bartender slides another whiskey across the bartop; Manu thanks him with a wink and a bit too lingering of a smile — it’s not faked, there’s plenty to admire, and the bartender’s tight shirt doesn’t require much of the imagination. Manu transfers him a generous tip from Sylla Mar’s expense account.

The bartender just turns away with a polite service-industry smile and drops Manu’s empty glass into the sanitizer without noticing the tag at the bottom. Let him come to the wrong conclusion about why Manu is camping at his seedy bar just outside the posh, touristy Tamarind District.

Manu can’t even remember the last time he came to this part of Bulari. He thinks it was when he was still a kid, just dropped out of third levels to help his dad with the business, barhopping on cash stolen from his dad’s till with some of his buddies from Carama Town, tallying up who could get the most colorful cussing-outs from tourist girls and toss-outs from bouncers. If he remembers right they got kicked out of six bars before the cops got called.

It was a good night.

Manu gives the Bronze Room another scan. This may have been one of those bars; he can’t remember. The end of that night’s a bit of a blur.

Manu taps a fingernail against the side of his glass, waiting. His nails are a poison acid green tonight, same as his hair. The color pops nicely against his black skin.

He goes over the dossier once more.

The mark tonight’s on the meaner end of the Bulari thug spectrum; he’s the type almost everybody’d like to see gone, though nobody but Manu’s been stupid enough to try. Small crew of riffraff, each uglier and crueler than the next. Got himself a live-in lady, a clean-looking type who must have a pretty low opinion of herself to end up with scum — but she’s hardly alone in this city. Manu’ll be doing her a favor, killing Willem Jaantzen.

Manu’s been gathering intel on his mark for two weeks, long enough that Sylla Mar’s started dropping hints that maybe his heart’s not really in it, that maybe Manu’s all talk and no action.

Those are the exact words she used, too, last time her goons brought him in. Lounging on that black velvet like she styles herself a goddess, smoke from her laced cigarette spiraling through her neon purple and pink locks. Dry, overpainted lips and eyelids weighed down with pigment, Sylla looked a caricature of a vid crime lord, right down to the thick-jowled musclemen who flanked her divan.

Even now, Manu tries to imagine those men as his co-workers, Sylla as his boss. Tries to imagine himself taking orders spoken in that husky undertone, punctuated by the cartoonish cracking knuckles of her goons.

Wonders if he’ll ever stop watching his back with them as his crew.

No. Joining Sylla’s crew isn’t ideal, but who ever said life was perfect? The city’s getting tight, lately. Strangling out the independent operators, choking out the way Manu used to exist. Too many petty alliances between the bosses, too many turning snitch on the little guys to build up their credibility with the government. Sometimes a freelance hitman needs a friendly crew to weather out the storm of crackdowns and backstabbings.

And Sylla’s crew will do.

Better than getting himself an indenture. Manu’d rather be free and hungry than owned by some corporation.

Provided he can handle this initiation she set out for him.

Killing Willem Jaantzen.

It’s a terrible idea, and Manu’s been thinking of walking away all week. He actually can’t decide if Sylla’s messing with him — maybe she’s one of those women who hates saying no outright, and this is just a convenient way to get rid of him for good rather than taking him in. She sure didn’t seem to think he could actually do it.

If he’s honest with himself, he hasn’t been thinking he can do it, either. He’s taken out his fair share of lowlifes and deadbeat ex-boyfriends, but he’s never had a mark this big.

You don’t know if you don’t try, though, right?

Because if he makes this hit, it doesn’t even matter if he sticks with Sylla and her band of shifty thugs. Killing Jaantzen will get him a job wherever he wants.

Killing Jaantzen with style might even get him a job with Thala Coeur, Blackheart herself. Now there’s a scary bitch — but she’s got a crew that actually watches out for each other. Joining Blackheart’s crew, now that’s a proper life goal.

Manu doesn’t need Sylla, but he does need this win.

The singer stops crooning to a smattering of applause that seems more grateful than appreciative, and he disappears into the back with his tip jar. Manu notes that with a frown. It’s not a big deal — Manu’s tags have been thoroughly seeded. Just, Manu hopes the singer hasn’t put all those tokens in his pocket. Nobody deserves that, even for botching show tunes this badly.

Manu takes another sip of shitty whiskey.

He’s gonna have fun busting this place up.

* * *

Manu doesn’t need to be watching the door to know when Willem Jaantzen walks in. The whole energy of the place shifts, gets thin and sharp as a razor. There’s two Arquellian girls a few seats down the bar, laughing too loud to hide their nerves, racking up stories of slumming it in Bulari to tell their friends back on Indira. They notice the hush but don’t mark its meaning; the one closest to Manu glances towards the door and raises a catty eyebrow before turning back in a cascade of black ringlets to whisper in her friend’s ear.

Manu shifts like he’s checking her out and sees Jaantzen walk past, all broad shoulders and barrel chest. He’s dressed more stylishly than Manu’s used to seeing, like a man taught young which social cues others respect and who’s now able to afford it. He’s got two silver earrings in his right ear, two silver rings on each hand — bright glimmers against his rich brown skin.

Jaantzen ensconces himself at an empty table, though he doesn’t seem possessive about it, not like Manu expects from a man at the head of one of Bulari’s most up-and-coming crime rings. It’s not the best table in the house, but it’s in the corner with a decent view of the door. And a proximity to the stage Manu’s sure Jaantzen will regret when the singer comes back for his next set.

Jaantzen’s not traveling with bodyguards, this deep in his own territory, but he does have companions. Manu recognizes them: a brother and sister pair a lot of Bulari’s bosses work with, the Lordeurs. They’re bankers, kind of. Laundering big takes and fencing stolen goods. Tossing money out and reeling it back in with fat fish like Jaantzen attached.

He hesitates now. You never know when you might need a loan — plus, the Lordeurs’ve got a lot more friends than a loner thug like Jaantzen. Manu wonders if he’ll ever need their services, decides probably not. And anyway, the whole bar is tagged at this point. If he walks away now he’s never getting another chance — and he’s out a small fortune in hornet tags.

Manu ignores that nagging, rational voice telling him that the smart thing to do is to walk away.

The singer’s gone back up onstage; Manu catches Jaantzen’s frown of annoyance at the first warbled notes, catches the singer’s furtive glances at Jaantzen’s nearby table. The boss is in the house tonight, and this guy knows he’s not getting invited back for another gig.

Manu pushes his glass back towards the bartender and waves off the raised eyebrow asking if he wants another drink. He slips his little transmitter underneath the bartop and clicks the sequence to arm it. Feels it pulse faintly under his fingertips to tell him it’s good to go.

No safe return now. Not until he kills Jaantzen.

Manu pushes off to the bathroom, a touch of whiskey sway to his shoulders and a sloppy nod to one of the Arquellian girls. She gives him a dirty look.

He’s counting, and as he draws level with Jaantzen’s table — a fraction of a second after he hits twenty — the bar shatters. The front of the glasses case blows off its hinges in a rush of smoke and fire. The long mirror beside the bathroom hallway and the picture window beside the front door both shatter, cascading shards of glass hitting all the high notes over the sound of screaming. At the back of the stage, the singer’s backpack explodes. That’s where that tagged coin ended up; Manu lets the thought slide past.

His attention is entirely on Jaantzen.

The Lordeur siblings have ducked to take shelter below the table — the little blasts from the hornet tags sound like gunshots, and all around people are diving to the floor.

Willem Jaantzen is not diving to the floor.

He hasn’t registered Manu as the enemy yet — Manu dropped like the others in the chaos. As Jaantzen turns away to scan his bar, weapon in hand, Manu takes his shot.

Jaantzen must have heard something, seen a flash. Anyway, he’s fast for such a big man, and as Manu squeezes off a second shot, Jaantzen kicks the pistol out of his hand.

No worries, Manu’s got a backup gun.

He draws it, springs back to his feet and away as Jaantzen charges him, feeling the situation slip. Had to be flashy to impress Sylla, he thinks. Had to be an idiot.

His third shot is an inch too low, hits square in Jaantzen’s body armor rather than in the throat, and Jaantzen only grunts, catches him with an elbow to the sternum, a meaty hand to the throat. Jaantzen lifts him off the ground by his collar, those dead shark’s eyes searching his, and all he can think is that he’s seen this scene in gangster vids, and it does not end well for the guy with his feet dangling over the glass-strewn bar floor.

Jaantzen lifts his chin to someone behind Manu, and a blast of pain hits him between the shoulder blades.

Game’s over.

 Pre-order Negative Return for $0.99 here.

Cover Reveal! Shifting Borders [plus excerpt]

I’m excited to announce that I have an official cover for Shifting Borders!


It was designed by Eloise Knapp from EK Cover Design, and I think it does a fantastic job conveying the mood of the book.

Writing Shifting Borders and working on the Four Windows project has been a long, exhausting process, and sometimes along the way I’ve forgotten that an actual, finished book will be the result of all this hard work.

This gorgeous cover is a reminder of that.

The manuscript is currently with my editor, Kyra Freestar, after which we’ll finalize the layout and get it ready to launch – appropriately just in time for my favorite spooky month, October.

Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when it’s ready to go (and to get biweekly writing prompts and reading recommendations).

In celebration of the cover reveal, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, wherein Patricia and Valeria quickly find themselves over their heads. I’d love to hear what you think – feel free to shoot me an email, or leave a note in the comments!

Shifting Borders [excerpt]

Patricia Ramos-Waites picked her way through the brackish puddles that passed for a sidewalk in this part of town. Reflected streetlight traced oily slicks in the pitted gravel, and a faint mist gathered on her cheeks and fogged her glasses. The neon sign announcing “Oh Pho” cast an orange hue in the premature evening gloom, but through the windows — papered with peeling, handwritten specials — the restaurant looked empty.

No, not empty. Her sister sat at a table near the door, shredding the label of her Tsingtao. Patricia waved, and Valeria scowled. Fantastic.

“Two small number sixes,” Valeria said to the waitress before rising to kiss Patricia. They were alone in the restaurant, no surprise for a Monday night, given how far it was from civilization. Oh Pho’s regular clientele of commercial truck drivers and warehouse workers had gone home for the night, and it was too far from the artists’ lofts and shops in Georgetown’s main strip to attract the few people that actually lived down here.

“I saw two of your buses go by already,” said Valeria. “You said you’d be here by 5:30.”

Patricia wedged her stuffed backpack into the plastic booth opposite her sister, then slid in beside it. “Work was fine today, thanks for asking,” she said. “We’ve been short-staffed this week, so things are extra busy. How are you doing, Val?” She searched her sister’s face for cracks there — it had only been two weeks since the funeral, and though she’d called daily, Valeria had been putting her off.

She’d be putting her off today, as well. “Jesus, Pati,” Valeria sighed. “Don’t be a bitch. You’re just never late.”

“I can’t make the buses run on time.”

“But you can call.”

So this was how it was going to go. “It’s 5:45, Val.”

“Yeah. And I’ve got places to be.”

“Then don’t let me keep you waiting,” Patricia snapped — and instantly regretted it, but didn’t apologize. Just another snipe-fest between sisters, she thought.

The waitress returned before any more friendly fire could be loosed, two massive bowls of soup balanced on her tray. Valeria set to plucking out her slices of beef while they were still pink, draping them over the side of her bowl. Patricia used her chopsticks to plunge her beef deeper into the boiling broth.

“I need a favor from you tonight, Pati,” Valeria said, shredding basil leaves into her soup without making eye contact. Patricia watched her with a sinking feeling, taking in her sister’s black clothes, the black gloves lying on the table, the faint scent of pungent herbs rising above the anise aroma of the pho.

Nighttime favors meant Resurrections.

“I have to help Ava with her science project,” Patricia said automatically. She reached for the Sriracha, but hesitated when she saw the nozzle’s tip: crusted over and black. Jalepeños would be — Patricia sighed. Would have been fine. Valeria had dumped them all into her bowl, and was busy doctoring her soup into a nuclear accident of gloppy brown plum sauce and safety-orange Sriracha. Chili oil formed a greasy slick across the top.

“It’s important.” Valeria finally looked up. “It’s Marco.”

Patricia’s heart broke for her sister. “Oh, no. No no no.”

“Please, Pati.”

“Do you have a permit? A court order? Because how will you explain to my kids that their mom has to go to jail over an illegal resurrection? Val, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry he’s gone.” She reached across the table, took Valeria’s cold hand in hers. The nails were ragged, chewed to the nub like Valeria used to do when they were girls. They were painted a cafe con leche color which nearly matched her own skin, a subdued tone that worried Patricia. Everything about Valeria had been more subdued since Marco’s accident.

And then the hand was gone. “Wouldn’t you have brought Joe back if you could have?”

That stab, unfair and unexpected, sliced neatly through six years of emotional scar tissue. “Joe is in Heaven,” Patricia said quietly. “Why would I bring him back from that?”

“What if you knew he wanted to come?”

“You can’t speak to the dead in their graves.”

“You can if they want to be spoken to.” Valeria met her gaze, eyes fierce and tear-bright, smoky eye makeup smudged around the lids. The restaurant’s neon open sign called out the reddish tones in her dark hair, but her curls hung limp, and her lips were chapped under the silver gloss she wore. “When I go out to his grave, I can sense him, just a little bit. He’s waiting there. He wants me.”

“But do you have the legal paperwork?” Patricia stabbed at her soup with her chopsticks. Legally, a few ghosts were allowed to come back, mostly to help solve unsolvable cases or clear up disputes over wills. Illegally…. Patricia didn’t want to know. Valeria had been selling her body for years to a local Mexican Resurrectionist, acting as a Host for the spirits he brought back. Valeria claimed that they only worked the lucrative court contracts, but Patricia knew her better than that.

Valeria hesitated, and Patricia could see her practicing the lie. But then she sighed. “No. I don’t. This is entirely for me.”

“Then I can’t help you.”

“Patricia, is it a crime to bring back the man I love? When he wants to be with me?”

“You said you were done with the illegal stuff. I’m not bailing you out of jail again.” Patricia struggled to get a grip on a slippery piece of tendon, but her hand was shaking too badly to hold the chopsticks steady. Droplets of broth spattered the table when the morsel hit the soup’s surface. “I won’t help you.”

“I’ll be careful,” Valeria said. “No one will ever know.”

Patricia sighed. “Why do you need me? What about your Mexican guy?”

“Lucho’s a businessman. He won’t do a resurrection for free, and I can’t pay him.”

A chill traced itself down Patricia’s spine. “So you’re going to—“

“I’ve done it before. I’m not just hosting for him now — he’s taken me on as an apprentice. I’ve done the last few resurrections on my own.”

“Val.” Patricia almost reached to take her sister’s hand again. “Come over tonight. Adrian’s at an away game, Ava’s got her science project to keep her busy, and I think I might even have a bottle of wine somewhere. You can stay over.”

“I can’t, it has to be tonight.” Valeria slurped a quick spoonful of broth, coughed on the chili sauces.

In the kitchen, the waitress and the cook were talking loudly in Vietnamese, pots banging as they cleaned up from the day. Calling this Monday night a bust, Patricia thought. Ready to go home to their own families just as soon as the Ramos sisters finished their meal. Patricia was suddenly very tired. “He’s dead, Val,” she said after a moment. “He won’t be the Marco you loved.”

“You haven’t seen them, the way people are when they’re reunited. The spooks are just as thrilled as the clients. I’ve made so many people happy, Pati. When do I get to be happy?”

“Val, this is stupid. You have to move on.”

“Yeah, like you did? You still wear Joe’s goddamn ring, Pati.” She dug into her purse, and threw a ten dollar bill on the table. “Forget it. Forget I ever asked you anything.”

“Valeria, wait.” Patricia grabbed her wrist, and Valeria didn’t try to pull away. “Promise me…”

“Promise you what.”

Promise me you won’t disappear without a trace this time, Patricia wanted to say, but that would only spark a fight she didn’t have the energy for. “Promise you’ll talk to me before you do anything rash.”

Valeria pulled away. “I am fucking talking to you, Pati.” She shrugged her purse over her shoulder and slammed the door as she left.


Forest Lawn Cemetery was a ten minute drive from Patricia’s house in White Center — less, the way Valeria was driving. “Slow down,” Patricia hissed, gripping the door handle with all her strength. “If you get pulled over, I don’t know how you’ll explain that to them.” She gestured at the duffel bag in the back seat. She had only a vague idea of what it contained, but it smelled sweet and foul as rotting fruit. “What’s the hurry? He’s not going anywhere.”

Valeria’s jaw tightened. “No hurry,” she said, but she glanced once more in the rearview mirror, and the speedometer crept slightly higher.

They parked a few blocks away, where no one would remark on an extra car, and stepped past the heavy chain that blocked the cemetery’s driveway. The earlier mist had shifted to a light rain, which was already soaking through the black Highline Pirates hoodie Patricia’s oldest son had left at home. Her only rain jacket was baby blue, and had been summarily vetoed by Valeria.

Rows of flat headstones tufted the well-manicured lawn, following the gentle contours of the hills. Trim Japanese maples dotted the grounds, and a few oaks stretched dark silhouettes against the low clouds. Persistent clouds meant Patricia hadn’t seen the moon for over a week, but the city lights infused the fog with the faintest of glows, illuminating their way. Barely.

Marco’s grave was in the northeast corner — far from the road, Patricia saw with relief, tucked near the strip of wild brambled forest that covered the ridge’s steep eastern shoulder. 

A waist-high fence separated the civilized dead from the disordered urban forest, and overhanging branches afforded them just enough cover from the rain. The toes of her sneakers squelched in sodden fresh turf.

Patricia shivered, realizing she was standing on Marco’s grave. She stepped aside.

Valeria’s duffle bag clinked as she set it down. She stooped to brush the leaves and grass clippings off the stone:

Marco Caruso

1975 — 2014

“Who will Marco be when you bring him back?” Patricia whispered, and Valeria stiffened but did not answer.

Valeria’s face glowed in the flame of her lighter; her jaw was set, her eyes flashing steel. She lit a pair of candles on the headstone, then a propane camping lamp. She shook a pair of coals onto a grate over the flame. “Stop looking over your shoulder. You’re making me nervous.”

“I thought the cops were cracking down on illegal resurrections.”

“The cops around here have drug deals to watch for. They’re not out patrolling the cemeteries.” Strain as she might, Patricia couldn’t see the gate over the rise of the hill — still, she felt exposed and nervous. Valeria looked up from her careful arrangement of…bones? Patricia shivered. “It’s fine, Pati. I’ve done this dozens of times. Hold this.” She handed her the flask of vile smelling liquid, and Patricia held it at arm’s length. She tried to force herself to relax.

The candles on the headstone sputtered as fat raindrops splashed down through the branches. It was never any use to talk sense into Valeria when she had a plan. When they were kids she’d nearly drowned after breaking into a neighbor’s swimming pool in Managua — Patricia had refused to go with her, and Valeria had snuck away to go on her own.

Their father had been angry with them both, but it was Patricia who’d gotten the spanking for not watching out for her little sister. Granted, Valeria had been in the emergency room, but the injustice still smarted.

Patricia had seen that same determined look in Valeria’s eye tonight. “What do you need me to do?” she asked, afraid of the answer.

“I’ll do all the ritual, don’t worry about that. I just need you to hand me things when I need them, and to break the circle if anything goes wrong.”

“Scalpel, stat,” Patricia said, trying to laugh. She shivered instead.

“Normally the Resurrectionist summons a spirit into a Host, but I’ve been reading about modifications to the spell that let a Resurrectionist call the spirit directly into herself.”


“I’ve done the original spell before, and the variation isn’t tricky. You’re here just because if anything goes wrong, I’ll need you to break the circle. Here.” Valeria dumped the now-lit coals into a censor like they used in Catholic churches, and handed it over to Patricia with a pair of tongs and a baggie full of some sweet-smelling herbs. “If anything goes wrong, just dump the herbs onto the coals, erase part of the circle with your foot, and put a coal in each of my hands.”


“Nothing’s going to go wrong. But if it does, you just dump the herbs, break the circle—“

“And put a burning coal into each of your bare hands,” Patricia said. She swallowed.

“Right. And keep an eye out.”

“For the security guard?”

“Sure.” Valeria swung her gaze over the cemetery, searching. When she seemed satisfied that they were alone, she lay down over the grave, her head resting just below the stone. She began to whisper at first, in Spanish oddly accented from years forgetting their native tongue, and then relearning it at the hands of her Mexican Resurrectionist. She seemed tense at first, hands clenched on her belly, but as she spoke she slowly relaxed, drawing her palms down over her hips, smoothing her dress in a way that seemed both self-conscious and sensual. Water began to seep up out of the fresh turf, darkening Valeria’s dress, cradling her hips like ghostly fingers. Patricia shivered.

Valeria’s voice fell to a whisper, and then she fell silent though her lips still moved. Patricia leaned closer, trying to make out the words. The salt ring glimmered a brief moment, then went dull once more. A faint play of light flashed over the wall of foliage beyond the edge of the cemetery.

Patricia looked up, startled.

Valeria’s hands clutched the grass, fingers worming their way into the fresh soil, her back arching, shoulders writhing against the headstone.

The light came again, stronger.

It could be the headlights of a car, maybe, someone turning down a residential street? The foliage above them lit up again. Flashlight.

Patricia’s mouth went dry.

“Valeria,” she whispered, but her sister didn’t seem to hear. “Valeria.” A breeze stirred the grass inside the salt circle, toyed with the ends of Valeria’s hair. The air around Patricia was still.

The beam of light came again, stronger now. The police. Patricia’s mind whirled as she thought up excuses, but there was no excuse that could explain away what they were so obviously doing. Oh, Lord, her job, her kids. The church. “Valeria!”

Her sister moaned.

Patricia glanced back over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of a small group in the distance, rough voices, laughter muffled by the fog. A hint of cigarette smoke drifted on the breeze before them.

Not the police.

“Valeria, we have to go.” Patricia hesitated, her foot poised over the line to erase it. What would breaking the circle right now do to her sister?

As if in response to the thought, Valeria’s body arched violently away from the ground, her face screwed into a silent scream. A trickle of black blood seeped from one nostril, and when she opened her eyes, the whites were colored an unholy pink.

Patricia fumbled for the brazier. She dashed her foot across the salt line, feeling a hurricane force of wind tear into her as she did. Her hair whipped across her eyes. She grabbed for Valeria’s hand, plucked a fiery coal from the censor.

The stench of burned flesh stung her nostrils as she dropped the first coal into Valeria’s hand — her sister gasped, flinging it away to hiss in the wet grass.

“Can’t take him,” Valeria whispered. “I almost—“

“Hey, hey, what you doing?” A shout came from behind them. “Ramos?”

The men were running, now, the glowing butt of a cigarette flicked into the grass, the silhouette of a handgun against the fog.

Patricia grabbed Valeria’s hands, tugging desperately against her sister’s dead weight. “No, no no nooo,” Valeria gasped. Her body arched again, wrenching violently as her heels dug into the fresh turf above Marco’s grave. She screamed, piercing the night.

Patricia pulled once more with all her might, dragging her sister’s writhing body past the salt line.

She gasped as an ice-cold wind rushed through her, then searing heat; her body suddenly felt too tight.

Too tight, yet surprisingly strong. She yanked her sister to her feet and half-carried, half-dragged her toward the cover of dense brush at the edge of the cemetery.

A gun shot rang out. Bark splintered off the oak above them. Someone let off a stream of curses. “Don’t kill her, pendejo!”

Patricia boosted Valeria over the fence, then vaulted it herself, tumbling into a clutching Oregon grape that clawed at her baggy sweatshirt. She grabbed Valeria’s arm, propelling her through the underbrush like a reluctant toddler, heedless of blackberry thorns and slapping wet ferns, sliding ever downward through the sloping underbrush.

Now running, now tumbling, until Patricia’s shins hit against the trunk of a fallen tree and she dropped, stifling a cry. She wriggled her way between the tree and the sodden earth, hugging her sister tight to her, hand clamped over Valeria’s mouth.

Valeria shook uncontrollably, but whether from fear or cold — or from the spell — Patricia couldn’t tell.

The crashing pursuit continued a few minutes longer, the men calling to each other, the beams of their flashlights streaking terrifyingly close to where the Ramos sisters lay. After a long while the sounds faded to silence.

Patricia stayed still, unsure if they had actually left; the chorus of rushing blood in her ears and her sister’s ragged breath muffled all other sounds. A stone dug into her ribs. When she could bear it no more, she lifted her weight onto just one shoulder, shifting so her hand could brush away the stone.

A twig snapped. Less than ten feet away.

She froze, her heart pounding.

“Val. Valium, baby.” The same man who had shouted earlier was wheezing now, his voice raspy from liquor and smoke. “I know you’re in here somewhere. I know you can hear me, and you know what I want. I’m gonna send one of my boys to see you tomorrow. Call me in the morning, we talk and I’ll send Charles. But sweetheart, you think you’re smart, you try to lay low? I’ll send Javier.”

He waited as though expecting a response, but damned if Patricia was going to give him one. Valeria’s breath came ragged and hot under Patricia’s hand.

After what seemed like eternity, Patricia heard him clamber, swearing, back through the underbrush.

Patricia gripped her sister tight a while longer, her cheek wet with Valeria’s tears, Valeria’s fingers curled in her hair, her own fingers digging into the wet thin fabric of Valeria’s dress. Valeria was shivering, flighty tremors that slowly grew into sobs.

The rich black earth reeked of decay, the slick mat of waterlogged leaves beneath them rotting back into soil. Something crawled over Patricia’s hand. It had started to rain in earnest now, gathering in the leaves, dripping in fat drops onto Patricia’s back.

“We should go,” Patricia said finally, but she couldn’t make herself move. She should be afraid, she should feel cold, but the only sensation Patricia was aware of was joy, elation at finding herself in Valeria’s arms. :val, valvalval:

Something stirred deep within her, its attention pulsing toward Valeria. She stroked her sister’s back, brushed her lips against her cheek.

“I failed, Pati,” Valeria said after a long moment. “There’s no second chance. He’s gone forever.”

Patricia kissed her sister’s forehead, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Warm, vital blood rushed in her veins. “It’s OK, babe,” she heard herself say. “I’m here.”

A pressure, like the pulsing ache of an anxiety attack, began in Patricia’s chest, like her ribcage was too tight, her lungs carved of stone. She forced herself to take deep breaths, pushing against the pain.

“They wanted Marco,” she heard Valeria say. “And they probably got him.”

“What?” The pressure inside her chest swirled, fluttering against her ribcage. A wave of clammy heat broke over her, and she tugged at the throat of her hoodie, trying to breathe. Nausea, throbbing head, hot flashes, Patricia ticked off the symptoms, trying to remember if she’d hit her head. She pushed Valeria away from her and scrambled out from beneath the fallen tree, just in time to revisit her earlier meal of pho.

Patricia wiped her lips on the sleeve of the now-filthy hoodie. Sorry, Gabe.

“You OK, Pati?”

Valeria’s voice swam to her as though through water. “Who were they?” Patricia asked, and Valeria started to answer, in that hedging way when she was trying to lie without lying. Patricia couldn’t make out her words — they sounded muddled, echoey, and Patricia fought down her rising panic. I think I have a concussion, she tried to tell her sister, but her lips wouldn’t move. I think. . . . And the pressure — the presence? — in Patricia’s chest stopped fluttering. It shifted, just ever so slightly.


“I’m Patricia,” she whispered. “Who are you?”

Valeria stopped mid-sentence. “Pati? Oh, shit. Pati?”

Patricia could feel her sister’s hands on her face, hear her frantic voice, but all she could focus on was the swirling voice in her head. :whowhowho?: The world went black.

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