CHAPTER 7

“What’s the matter?” I whispered, placing my hand on Clay’s chest. His heartbeat raced beneath my palm.

“Nothing,” he said harshly. “Go on back to sleep.”

As if I could when he was so upset.

His voice had slid south, the accent he’d lost found again. I lifted my fingers to his face, stroked his temple, played with his hair. Inch by inch he relaxed, but he didn’t fall asleep.

“Nightmare?” I asked.

He snorted.

“Wanna tell me about it?”

“So you can have nightmares too?”

Just like that, his voice had returned to the flat, cultured tones that told no one where he’d come from, gave no hint of where he’d been.

“Like I don’t already have them?”

He shifted, as if to see my face, but he couldn’t in this darkest hour that always preceded dawn.

“What do you dream, Maya Alexander?”

He was asking about the bad dreams—the times when I awoke gasping and panicked, the nights I relived my mother’s death, I’d added twenty years to my age, but those dreams of a little girl left alone had never gone away.

I’d be damned if I’d share past nightmares while we were fashioning new ones. Here, in the dark, in his arms, was the time for sharing happy dreams.

“I dream of the New York Times!”

“You want to own a newspaper?”

“The list. Books? My job?”

“Ah,” he said, though I could tell he didn’t understand. Non-writers rarely did.

The New York Times Bestseller List was a rare accolade aspired to by every author who put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Not only did the list mean prestige and fame, it meant money. While I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the food, the clothes, the shelter too. Or I had until they’d gone boom.

On any other day I’d have been worried sick over the loss of everything I owned. Since I’d be lucky to get out of this alive, and would therefore have no further need of stuff, I experienced a sense of freedom I couldn’t recall having since long before my mother had died.

“What else do you dream of?” he asked.

“A cabin in the woods.”

“Oops.”

“Yeah. I hate the thought of running home to Daddy.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

He wouldn’t, but he’d never let me forget it, and neither would the bozos I called brothers. They’d already started a pool on when I’d call it quits. I’d put ten bucks on the space marked “not in this lifetime.” However, if I was sent home in a pine box, did that mean whoever had the space nearest the date of my death got the money? Oh well, I wouldn’t be around to be pissed off about it.

“Ever dream of a husband, a family?”

“No,” I lied. Because I had—an eon ago when I’d still believed the line they fed little girls. That there’s someone for everyone. One man, one woman, for all time.

I was two inches short of six feet. I weighed a hundred and sixty pounds. My hair was long and red, my skin white, except for the freckles. And I talked, daily, to people who didn’t exist. Or at least I had before the damned writer’s block hit.

“So there’s no irate fianc? who’s going to kick my ass?”

“Don’t worry. Your ass is safe with me.”

He chuckled, appearing to have forgotten the nightmare, which was exactly what I’d had in mind. But appearances are deceiving, because Clay suddenly stiffened and withdrew from my arms.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I didn’t use a condom. I’ve never done that. Never. Hell, I didn’t even think about it until now.”

I hadn’t either. No big surprise there. All I’d been able to think of, practically since we’d met, was getting him inside me. Now he’d been there, and left a little something behind.

My mind whirred, counting backward, letting out the breath I’d been holding. “We should be all right. The days are wrong.”

“There’s still a chance—”

“There’s always a chance.”

A tiny flutter began in my belly. I think it was hope. Or hunger. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Which probably explained the lightheaded ness, but the stupidity was all my own. My mind was suddenly full of pink ribbons and blue bicycles. English stone cottages and wedding bells. I forgot who I was dealing with.

“This can never happen again, Maya.”

“Barn door wide open, horse running down the street,” I mumbled. “Or maybe up the stream.”

“This isn’t funny!” he snapped.

I jumped, wrapping my arms around myself as tears stung my eyes. Even though I’d just denied any need for home and family, his reaction hurt. I’d believed for just an instant that he saw me differently than other men, that he found me funny, pretty. That he might even consider me special.

“I’m sorry if the idea of making a baby with me is so disgusting.”

“That’s not it.” He took a deep breath, which caught in the middle. “I tried to be normal once, tried to love someone and have a life. She was the one who paid.”

“Serena,” I whispered.

“You asked about my nightmare. This is it. I let someone get close to me, then the monsters take them away. They’ll use you against me, and I can’t let that happen.”

“You could quit.”

“No. I vowed over the bodies of my grandparents, my parents, my sisters, my brother, then Serena that I wouldn’t stop until every werewolf was dead.”

“You could be alone for the rest of your life. I doubt your family, or Serena, would want that.”

“If I quit, people die. The survivors get my nightmares. I can’t live with that either. I’ve lost those I loved twice. I wouldn’t survive being a three-time loser.”

“So you have nothing, love no one?”

“It’s the only way I can go on.”

Silence settled between us. When I finally slept, my dreams weren’t happy, and when I awoke my cheeks were tight with dried tears. I was alone, just as I’d been in those dreams.

Gray light filtered through the scrub across the entry-way, illuminating my clothes strewn across the floor of the cave, revealing Clay’s silhouette near the door. When he’d left me to stand watch again, I had no idea, but his absence had seeped into my subconscious, creating loneliness even though he was only a few feet away.

I got up, gathered my clothes, got dressed. I had just tied my flannel shirt around my waist and slipped into my shoes, when the snap of a twig and the ping of stone on stone made us freeze. Clay held up one hand indicating I should stay back, even as he reached for his Beretta with the other.

His trap had been sprung. Something lurked outside our cave. But what?

We’d heard no howls, no pitter-patter of tiny feet, not even the thud of great, big paws. Nothing until the snap, crackle, ping. Could a skinwalker fly?

I recalled the skins of the eagle and the raven in Joseph’s cabin. I had a very bad feeling that it could.

“Hello, the cave. Anyone there?”

Clay frowned and his gun dipped a bit. The voice had been gruff, wobbly—the voice of a very old man.

Joseph? I mouthed.

Clay shook his head and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “Mandenauer said he’s about my age.”

“Hello?” the voice repeated. “You need help?”

Clay crept to the side of the entrance and peeked through the tiny hole in the covering. His shoulders relaxed at the sight.

“Ancient white guy,” he told me.

“Sounds like a new rock group.”

His lips twitched. I liked it that he found me funny. I liked it that he’d found me at all. Just my luck he’d sworn off women along with his life.

Clay tore down the covering with a sweep of one hand and crawled into the daylight. I followed, standing stiffly at his side. We’d slept longer than I thought. The brush over the entry had shaded the rising sun amazingly well. From its position in the sky the day was well past noon.

My first sight of our visitor made the word “ghost” whisper through my head, and not because he was pale. His skin was as sun-bronzed as Clay’s and showed the wear of countless years. His hair was long and white, his clothes had seen better days. Perhaps in the year 1895.

He looked like the poster boy for a gold rush—grizzled prospector complete with six-guns and a mule. His pack animal pulled for all it was worm—which couldn’t be much considering the gnarled forelocks and swayed back—at the very end of its tether.

“Stop that, Cissy.” The old man yanked on the rope. “We’ll be off in a bit.”

He grinned at us, several black gaps appearing where teeth should be. “I’m Jack.”

“Clay Philips. Maya Alexander. We could use a little help, Mr.—”

“Just Jack, boy. No need to ‘mister’ me.”

“Jack, then. How close are we to a town?”

“Depends what kind of town yer lookin’ fer. Ghost towns all over the place. Real town?” He shrugged. “Fifty miles ‘r more.”

“How about a phone?”

“That I got. Back at my place.”

“Could we borrow it?”

“Sure. Follow me.”

The old man headed toward the slowly descending sun. As he passed Cissy she brayed and skittered backward. Jack pulled on her lead, but she couldn’t be budged. He scratched his head, squinted at the animal.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into ‘er.” He tethered Cissy to a juniper and lifted the saddlebags from her back. “I’ll just let her think on things a while. Fetch her later.”

Slinging the pack over his own shoulders, he strode off. Clay and I fell in behind.

“Why do we need a phone?” I whispered.

“I’m going to have one of my colleagues pick you up and take you somewhere safe. Then I’ll go after the skin-walker.”

I didn’t like the idea of a babysitter. I liked the idea of Clay facing the skinwalker alone even less, and I told him so.

“I’ve done this a hundred times before, Maya.”

“You’ve killed a hundred skinwalkers?”

He scowled. “You know I haven’t, but someone has to handle the situation.”

I’d heard the same explanation from my father and each one of my brothers. Why are you a cop? Someone has to be. I didn’t like the rationalization any better from Clay than I had from them.

“You don’t know what you’re facing.”

“I know my job. I’ll do a better one if I’m not worrying about you.”

“Will I ever see you again?”

He didn’t answer, which was answer enough.

We continued to walk. Jack was ahead of us by quite a few yards. The old guy could really make some time. Clay brought up the rear, watching the horizon with suspicious eyes.

“Aren’t wolves nocturnal?” I asked.

“Doesn’t mean they can’t come out in the sunlight. They aren’t vampires.”

“What about werewolves?”

“Most can’t change until dusk.”

“Then what are you nervous about now?”

“A skinwalker is a special type of werewolf. One that can pad around anytime it puts on the skin.”

Suddenly I was watching the horizon, too.

We’d been walking for over an hour when Clay asked, “How far away do you live, sir?”

“Not far now. Keep your pants on, sonny.”

“I wish I had,” Clay muttered.

I flashed him a dirty look, which he ignored. We continued to walk for another three-quarters of an hour.

I wasn’t sure if it was the heat of the sun, the lack of water, the absence of food—but I started to see things. Shadows at the edge of my vision that disappeared when I glanced their way. Moisture hovering above the desert sand. A mountain where there hadn’t been one before.

Skinwalker.

I stopped as the wind whispered, except there wasn’t any wind.

“Maya?” Clay stared at me with a worried expression.

“Did you hear anything?”

He tilted his head. “No.”

I shrugged and kept walking.

Canon del Muerto.

My Spanish was as nonexistent as my next book. I ignored the voice I didn’t understand.

Maya.

Hell. The wind that wasn’t now whispered my name.

Jack disappeared around an outcropping of rock. I followed, then halted so fast Clay slammed into me from behind.

“What the—”

A huge canyon opened in front of us. Towering walls, rocky ledges, buttes the shade of the sun and the sturgeon moon.

“Welcome to Canon del Muerto,” Jack said in a low voice that was no longer his own. “The Canyon of the Dead.”

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