A. J. Larrieu A. J. Larrieu

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Dangerous Calling
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DANGEROUS CALLING

Excerpt

I'd forgotten how dark it got out in the country.

I was an hour outside New Orleans on a barely two-lane road. The asphalt was so neglected it was like stepping over tide pools, and I could see twice as many stars as usual. The night was velvet-soft with humidity and alive with the chirps of crickets and bullfrogs. I'd parked Shane's Camaro on the grassy shoulder of the road. The engine ticked as it cooled.

I would've been sitting in the car with the AC on full, but I couldn't afford to burn the gas. I wasn't worried about anything attacking me—being telekinetic gave you a certain amount of confidence against everyday problems like wandering murderers—but I did wish I could get out of the heat.

The gas station where I was waiting probably hadn't dispensed gas in twenty years, but the pumps were still there, displaying price-per-gallon values that, if valid, would've brought people in from a fifty-mile radius. I leaned against one of them and looked down the road. Not a streetlight in sight, and no headlights either. The woman had said midnight, and it was already well past.

She'd called me out of the blue. I wouldn't have picked up if it hadn't been a New Orleans number. She hadn't even said hello.

"You're Cass Weatherfield?" Her voice had been accusatory, as though she expected me to deny it.

"Yes. Who is this?"

"I need to talk to you." Her accent had a slight New Orleans flavor to it—emphasis and extra length on her a's, soft drops on her consonants—but fear made it clipped and breathless. It was the only thing that kept me from hanging up. That, and the fact that ever since I'd reawakened my powers, I'd been expecting something like this to happen. I was the strongest shadowmind in a city with no guardian. Until that changed, I was the de facto supernatural sheriff.

"What's this about?" I asked her.

"I need your help."

"Okay. Why don't we start with your name?"

She hesitated. I wondered if she was making one up.

"Diana."

"Diana. Why don't you come by, and we can talk. You can tell me what the problem is."

"No. Too dangerous." She put the phone down. I heard a quiet clack as the receiver hit something hard, the whoosh of traffic in the background, the occasional bleat of a horn.

"Diana?"

No answer. I began to worry that whatever dangerous thing she was running from, I was already too late to save her from it. It took her a full five minutes to get back on the line.

"I'll meet you. Somewhere safe." Her voice took me by surprise. I asked her to name a place—figured it would make her more comfortable—and she gave me the address of this circa-1980 gas station on River Edge Road sixty miles outside the city, about as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get and still have a road to get there. Shane hadn't wanted me to come alone, but she'd sounded so scared, I was afraid a strange man would only send her running.

I conjured up a fist-sized orb of light and let it float a few feet away in front of the old cashier's kiosk. The glass was broken and dusty, but there was still a collection of wire shelves inside, plus a sign advertising Live Bait! I hoped the bait was long gone. The light attracted a swarm of moths and mosquitoes, so I let it fizzle out. Almost one o'clock. Time to head home.

I had my hand on the door when a car came tearing around the bend behind me and into the gas station parking lot. It was an old maroon import in need of bodywork, and it stirred up dust and gravel that probably hadn't been disturbed in a decade. It skidded to a stop in front of the kiosk.

A woman threw herself out of the driver's seat. She was tall and slim, almost skinny, and her dark hair was pulled back in a high ponytail. She was wearing cotton shorts and a decade-old T-shirt from the Point Raney Blackberry Festival. It was dirty, and so was she. She looked as if she hadn't bathed in a week. There was a long scrape along one well-muscled leg, and her eyes were circled with blue shadows. She left the motor running and the door open and moved toward me, watching me with narrowed eyes. What I'd thought at first was a smudge of dirt along her honey-brown cheek looked more like a bruise when she got closer.

"Diana?" I straightened from my perch against the gas pump, but I didn't step forward. "I'm Cass." I kept my voice soft and slow. "Are you okay?"

She didn't answer, just darted her eyes up and down the deserted road. She took another step toward me—good, I thought—paused, and looked around again.

My first thought was that my instincts about why she'd contacted me had been right. Abusive boyfriend. She'd called from a pay phone—I'd checked the number—and she'd sounded scared. The scrape and the bruise told me all I needed to know.

Only a handful of normals knew about us, so she had to be a shadowmind of some kind. I was betting she wasn't a converter, like me. She was a dowser, maybe, or a pure telepath. I could've dipped into her head and found out, but I didn't want to, not with her so spooked. If some telekinetic bastard was beating her up, she wouldn't react well to an unsolicited invasion.

"You're shorter than I thought you'd be," she said finally.

I wasn't sure how to respond.

"How can I be sure you're really Cass Weatherfield?"

She said my name the way you'd say a celebrity's name, as if it were something more than words I'd answer to. It made me curious, and uncomfortable.

"Who told you about me?"

She shook her head. "How can I be sure?"

I knew what she was asking. Any converter can do simple energy conversions, turn her own energy into light or heat or motion. With enough practice, a garden-variety converter could create an orb of light like the one I'd conjured up earlier, or lift the rusted gas pump nozzle and wave it around. But I wasn't a garden-variety converter. I could pull.

I looked around the station. The gas pumps, the kiosk, the old gas company sign, yellow plastic broken and faded. I settled on Diana's car. It was a two-door import, and it probably weighed over two thousand pounds. Way, way more than an everyday converter could lift.

I held my hand out toward the car. Not necessary, but it helped me focus. I sharpened my awareness on the weight of it, the shape and the balance, then I felt around for what was available. The easiest source to pull from was, of course, Diana. If I'd wanted to kill her. It took a huge amount of concentration and focus to pull without hurting the humans around me, but after months of practice, I was growing more confident.

It was a still night, unfortunately, but it was plenty hot. Five miles away, the muddy Pearl River meandered its way to the gulf, but it was too far off for its slow current to be much use. The heat would have to be enough. I focused on the temperature and drew it in.

Nothing happened at first. When I had to be careful like this, I was slow. As I pulled in more and more of the heat energy of the night, the chassis of the old car creaked. My breath frosted in the air around me, and feathery tentacles of ice formed where my feet touched the crumbling asphalt. The air was humid enough that water vapor crystallized in the air, grew heavy and fell. The chassis groaned and the car broke free of the earth, hovering a foot and a half in the air. Around me, it was snowing.

I held it for as long as I dared, until the ice at my feet reached the gas pump to my left and crept up the discolored chrome structure like rust. I set the car down. It landed with only the barest bounce as the tires took on the full weight of the frame again. I turned to Diana, whom I'd been ignoring for her own safety.

She said, "I believe you."

"You said you needed help," I prompted.

"It's not about me."

"That's fine." My fists tightened. Did she have a kid with this guy? If the bastard had hurt a child, I wasn't going to bother with what passed for due process in our community. "Why don't we go somewhere safe and talk about it?"

She nodded slowly and took another step toward me. I turned and led her to Shane's Camaro. Halfway there, the sound of her footsteps stopped.

"Diana?"

She'd frozen in the middle of the driveway. Her irises had gone totally black—a sure sign of a shadowmind using her powers.

My first thought was that Shane had been right to worry. It was a trap, and this girl was about to stop my heart.

Well, she could try.

I abandoned etiquette and reached for her mind, but I came up short against mental walls more impenetrable than any I'd ever encountered. She didn't just have shields, she had defenses, and she was actively keeping me out. I gathered my own power, ready to protect myself, but the attack never came. Diana hit her knees on the uneven asphalt.

"No..." she said, but not to me. She swayed back and forth with her head in her hands. "No, no...too late." He eyes snapped back into focus. "You have to leave. I shouldn't have come."

"Diana, whoever's after you, I'm not afraid of him. I can protect you, okay? I won't let him hurt you."

"You don't understand." She scrambled to her feet and backed away from me. "I've put you in danger, I've put you both in danger."

"I can take care of myself, all right? Just come with me, we'll go somewhere safe, we can talk—"

She bolted.

"Diana!"

She sprinted back to her car. I tore after her, but she was quick. By the time I got close she was already peeling out, driver's side door open and flapping as she fishtailed.

"Stop!"

She tore out of the station and down the middle of the deserted road. I ran after her, reaching out with my powers.

If I hadn't cared about her safety, it would have been easy to stop her. I could've blown out her tires and crippled the car in an instant. The other option was drawing energy straight out of the internal combustion engine, but pulling power like that was a risk. Working that fast, I wasn't sure I'd be able to avoid draining energy from Diana, too, and there was too much risk she'd lose control of the car. So I settled for yelling and waving my arms. Like an idiot.

I ran a good four hundred yards before I gave up. She was too far away after the first fifty.

Her taillights faded into darkness, and I stopped in the middle of the road, bent double and gasping for breath. It was almost perfectly black again, and I startled when a bobcat padded out of the underbrush choking the roadside ditch and stole across the asphalt, eyes glinting green in the faint moonlight. The crickets were as loud as radio static. I turned and made my way back to Shane's car.

The only way I had to reach her was a pay phone number and a first name. Unless she decided to call me back, I'd just screwed up my first rescue mission. I got in the car, banged the steering wheel once, and pulled onto the road.

As I drove past the cracked parking lot, I saw a pair of sunglasses and a stray hair tie lying in the middle of the road. I was positive they hadn't been there before. I rolled down the window and levitated them into the car, turning them over in the air in front of me, careful not to make physical contact. The hair tie was tangled with straight black hair. Maybe I hadn't failed yet after all.

© A.J. Larrieu


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