Home > Bitter Night (Horngate Witches #1)

Bitter Night (Horngate Witches #1)
Diana Pharaoh Francis

1

MAX’S PHONE RANG. IT WAS SET TO A HIGH-pitched tone that most humans couldn’t hear. But being human hadn’t been Max’s problem since 1979. She eyed the cell, then reluctantly picked it up out of the console. The caller ID said it was Giselle. Instantly Max’s body seized tight. All the Zen detachment she’d scraped together on the long drive from the covenstead in Montana shattered apart as craptastic reality returned in a shitflood.

She drew a deep breath. Her lungs felt like rocks. She exhaled slowly before flipping open her phone. “Yeah?”

“Where are you?”

Max grimaced. Just the sound of the witch’s voice ignited familiar hate in her gut. It was like a bottomless volcano. She swallowed the heat down, tasting its bitterness with determined satisfaction. She banked it like a campfire. It belonged to her’the only thing that did, and the witch-bitch could never take it away. “Coming into Barstow. Why?”

“I want you to go check out a nasty little murder near Julian. It tastes of both the Uncanny and the Divine.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little stupid? You can’t just go fucking around in another witch’s territory. It could mean war if I get caught. Are you ready for that?”

Giselle didn’t hesitate. “It’s a risk I have to take. The vision was’”

She broke off and Max wondered what it was she’d stopped herself from saying.

“It was too powerful to ignore,” Giselle continued. “I have to know what’s going on there. Just look around and get out.” She gave a pained sigh. “And, Max, I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but do not accidentally on purpose let anyone see you.”

“Why would I do that?” Max replied all too innocently. “I couldn’t anyhow. You tied me up in compulsion spells. They would never let me do anything you didn’t want me to do, right?” Except there were ways around the spells. And Max had made herself an expert at them. “Besides, you know how I feel about you. Your wish is my fondest command.”

Silence. “Then I wish you wouldn’t be such a pain in my ass all the time. Stop trying to sabotage everything I do. This is important, Max. Don’t screw it up.”

The tense uneasiness in Giselle’s voice triggered a cascade of alarms inside Max. It was like a switch was flipped inside her as her compulsion spells took over. Her anger cooled instantly and every one of her magically heightened senses strained to hard alertness. She sat up in her seat. If one thing was true about Giselle, it was that the witch-bitch didn’t get nervous. As far as Max knew, she didn’t have the gene. Just what had been in that vision? What sort of apocalypse was going down in Julian?

There wasn’t any point in asking. Giselle would already have told her if she was going to say anything. “Anything else I need to know?” Max asked, turning businesslike as she allowed the predator inside her to take over. Cold detachment slid over her like armor, and her mind focused into sharp, clear lines. It wasn’t that she couldn’t feel. She just didn’t want her emotions to interfere with what she might have to do. She gave a slight shake of her head. No, it was that her spells wouldn’t allow her feelings to get in the way, which only made doing what she had to do that much worse. Better to become ice and deal with the thaw later. Much later.

“There’s an orchard north of town,” Giselle said, interrupting her thoughts. “That’s where it’s going to happen.”

“Going to?”

“In a couple of hours, give or take. It’s fixed, you can’t stop it. I’ll see you in San Diego tomorrow.” Giselle stopped, but didn’t hang up. Then: “Max’be careful. This might be ugly.”

The phone went dead. Max looked at it a moment, hesitating, then speed-dialed a number. Oz answered in one ring.

“Max? What’s wrong?”

“Does something have to be wrong for me to call you?” she asked, then winced. Ask a stupid question ΓǪ

“I’ve been with Giselle almost as long as you have. In all that time, you’ve never called me except when the shit’s in the fire. So what is it?”

Max lowered her phone to her lap, thinking. Oz said her name impatiently. She stared down the freeway. Should she say anything? But the undiluted worry in Giselle’s voice prodded her. She lifted the phone back to her ear. “I’ve got a feeling something bad’s coming, and I can’t shake it. Just make sure you and your Sun-spears stick tight to Giselle. Have my Blades do the same.”

She could almost hear his grin. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you actually cared about her.”

“Don’t make me kick your ass. I told you, if anybody gets to kill Giselle, it’s going to be me. In the meantime, keep her in one piece until I get there.”

“When is that?”

“By morning, if nothing goes wrong. I’ve got a stop to make first.”

Max didn’t give him the chance to answer or ask questions. She snapped her phone shut and dropped it back onto the console before swerving off onto the shoulder and grinding to a dusty halt in the desert darkness.

According to her atlas, Julian was about a hundred and fifty miles away in the mountains. The drive would take her almost three hours, but it didn’t matter when she got there. The murder was fixed. She closed her eyes, leaning her head back on the headrest, rubbing her fingers over the spot between her eyebrows. It wasn’t her job to help people. She was no one’s knight in shining armor. She was a killer, Giselle’s favorite weapon. Besides, even if she could get to Julian in time, nothing said that anyone there was worth saving. She swallowed hard. Giselle had said the murder tasted of the Uncanny and the Divine. So that meant that whoever was mixed up in this likely deserved it.

Her stomach didn’t believe it. She reached for the steering wheel again. Her stomach didn’t get a vote. Besides, she hadn’t eaten for hours. She was just hungry.

Max pulled back onto Highway 15 and hit the gas. It was nearing ten o’clock, and behind her lights beaded in the darkness coming down the hill from Las Vegas. In Victorville she pulled off and stopped at a McDonald’s.

In the parking lot, she considered going through the drive-through, but her bladder had other ideas. She glanced through the dark-tinted windshield, considering. It was a night short of the full moon and not a cloud in the sky. Grabbing her leather jacket from the backseat, she pulled it on and zipped it up to hide the .45 in the holster against her left ribs and the knife sheaths on her forearms. She had a .380 strapped to her right ankle and another double-bladed combat knife in the small of her back.

She yanked her Big Sky Brewing Company hat down low over her sunglasses and short silver-blond hair and pulled up the collar high on her coat.

Pocketing her keys, she opened the door of the Chevy Tahoe. Instantly she felt the burn as the brilliant moonlight bubbled her skin. The reflected sunlight seared the backs of her hands, a seam on her neck, and the unshadowed portion of her face. There was a faint sizzle and the nauseating smell of burning hair. She grimaced and strode quickly to the door, heading straight for the bathroom. There was no one in the dining area to notice the blisters, or that as she walked between the tables, her skin smoothed back into flawless marble. She ignored the unrelenting itchiness that followed after, a side effect of her healing spells.

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