Emergence- Chapter Three
The water was freezing. Breaking the surface with a gasp, Jessica tried to shake the hair out of her eyes with limited success. The swift current swirled her around like a kitten that had been tossed in to drown.
What the hell was I thinking?
The clearest her mind had been in days, unfortunately, it was a little too late to make use of it. Jagged rocks rose up from nowhere and she bashed into them, blindly scrabbling to hold onto their slimy coating. The river ripped her away, spinning her farther downstream. Attempting to get her bearings, she made an effort to slow her passage by swimming diagonally across the rapids, but a log loomed up in front of her. Franticly she dove, but a submerged branch sliced into her thigh and another one ripped her calf. She surfaced, gasping in pain and coughing up river water.
I’ve got to get out. I hope I’ve managed to lose them. She forced her leaden limbs to function and pushed her exhausted body toward the shore. For each stroke she made across, the current sent her quadruple that downstream. It wasn’t until she hit a more placid stretch of water that she made any progress. After what seemed an eternity, she reached the edge and dragged herself onto the muddy bank, coughing up half the river. She collapsed, gasping in pain and shivering with the cold.
I need to keep moving or I’ll freeze to death. She took a deep breath and tried to gain her feet but her numb body wouldn’t cooperate. Come on, damn it. You can do it.
Trying again, she finally managed to rise. A whimper of pain choked out of her. Now that she was out of the water, feeling quickly returned to her extremities, causing the gashes in her leg to burn and throb. It felt like someone held her leg in a vat of acid. She pushed aside the pain as best she could and looked around. Ok, where am I? Looks like I came out on my side of the river. Yes! And I can see again. That’s good news at least.
She plucked at her sopping clothing, squeezing the water out. I can’t go on like this, I’ve got to get dry or I’ll still freeze. She reached around and scratched her back absently, shivers raced across her skin. I’ve lost them, at least for the moment. But if I want to stay free, I need a few things. They’ll spend time searching the river for me, so with any luck no one will be at my house. Thankful that her mind was her own, however briefly, Jessica climbed the hillside and trudged her way through the bushes leaving the river behind. It wasn’t hard to find a trail where she could pick up her pace to a jog. Her mind wandered as she ran. What does a normal recovery team consist of? I think May said that it’s four men. Not usually Hunters though… I think. If I’m right, I left at least two of them behind at the river, which leaves two unaccounted for. Hopefully they followed the Hunters.
Because of how the river bent, she wasn’t as far from her house as she had feared and she started to recognize the area fairly quickly. She slowed down when she neared her home, approaching it as quietly as she could. Though she knew that if the Hunters were around, it wouldn’t matter how quiet she was. They’d hear her anyway. Skirting the boundary of her property, she watched the house for any sign of someone waiting. Finally, cold drove her in. She hadn’t seen any movement inside, or other signs of recovery people left outside, in the several minutes that she spent observing. Holding her breath, she slipped up to the back door and peered through the window. She couldn’t believe her luck when she saw the building truly was deserted.
Dawn was just a couple hours away now; the hunt would pick up momentum then. With fingers shaking from the cold she pulled the corner of the door mat up and grabbed her spare key. Daylight will be on their side, they’ll have many more eyes working for them.
She kicked the door shut then stripped off her torn, sodden, muddy clothes, leaving them in a trail on her way to the bathroom. Once there, she fumbled with the knobs on the shower until she got the water going. Her body was so stiff she could barely climb into the tub. She moaned as the hot spray cascaded over her chilled and battered body, and she fought the over whelming need to sleep. The tears she’d repressed during her escape started to leak out as she watched the filthy water swirl down the drain. She allowed herself a couple of minutes before telling herself to get a grip. Dredging up more energy, she washed her hair then ruthlessly scrubbed her newly acquired cuts, scrapes, and bruises. With those tended to, the discomfort along her shoulder blades asserted itself. She reached for the bath brush. Vigorous scouring gave temporary relief to the itching and burning on her back.
She stood there for a few minutes letting the water wash over her. It no longer ran muddy, but a fading pink as her injuries washed clean. So what now? I won’t have much of a head start. Maybe I should try to go to Marcus. Robin did.
But that option didn’t sit well with her. Slicking her wet hair back, she shut the water off. No, I made my decision about that a long time ago. Well, first things first, get doctored up then grab a few things and leave.
She pushed the curtain aside and made her stiff body get out of the tub. She groaned as she reached for a towel to dry off with, but when she wrapped it around herself it didn’t rest flat across her back.
Craning her head to look in the mirror, she could just make out a couple of lumps that had risen to the surface of her back between her shoulder blades. She stared at them in amazed, almost horrified fascination, and realized that her wings had started to grow.
The blisters were not very big yet, about the size of a baby’s fist each. Well, that certainly explains why my back itches. She stared at this first definitive evidence of her transformation. You’d think I would have noticed two huge zits growing on my back a little sooner. Granted, I guess I have been a bit busy.
She shook off the amazement and pulled her medical supplies out of the cabinet, sitting down to doctor her injuries while she thought about where to go.
I need money first. My options are kind of limited, since May took the car. The nearest ATM is at the mall.
She picked the last splinter out of her left foot and slathered numbing antibiotic ointment on them both, before wrapping them with a layer of gauze. Next, she examined the gashes on her calf and thigh and frowned. They both needed more attention than she could give them in the short time she had. So she settled for squeezing half the tube of ointment into them, then pulled each closed with butterfly bandages. She taped over the more severe one on her thigh, hoping to give it extra support. The last of the antibiotic went to whatever scratches seemed to need it the most before she tossed the tube and grabbed a handful of bandages on her way out of the room. Once in her bedroom, she started tossing things quickly out of her closet. She pulled on the first warm clothes she found and stuffed a few more changes into a backpack that sat on the floor.
Twisting her mass of chestnut curls in a fist, Jessica looked in the mirror. I should cut this. She thought reluctantly, but then she saw reflected from the window that it was getting lighter. Dawn. Not much more time. I’ll leave it for now. Securing the length into a ponytail, she finished her packing.
She threw in her hairbrush then dumped the first aid supplies on top. Sitting down on her bed, she squeezed her favorite shoes, a pair of red sneakers, on over her gauze swathed feet then headed to the kitchen.
She looked longingly at the stove, but moved past it to her pantry cupboards. What I wouldn’t give for some bacon and eggs. Or maybe some prime rib, or a nice juicy ham. Where are you, May, when I really need one of your home cooked meals? Instead, she grabbed a couple bottles of water; some granola bars and trail mix and tossed them into the knapsack. That’s all she had in the pantry that was instantly portable. Her sense of urgency screamed at her. Walking into the living room, she threw her wallet into the bag then looked around once more. Time to go.
She slung the bag over her shoulder and walked out the front door, then grabbing her bicycle from its customary spot on the porch, she headed off into the stream of morning traffic.
“Hey boyo’s, wake up, it’s getting light enough to move.” Flynn spoke quietly.
Sitting up, Nickolas rubbed his eyes then put his shoes on. “I sure hope she made it.” He murmured.
“Don’t worry Nick, she led us a good chase last night. She’s strong.”
Nickolas looked at his brother absently, accepting an energy bar from Jules before replying, “I hope so. She couldn’t have stayed in the water too long. Flynn, we’ll call as soon as we have any information.”
Outside the van the woods resounded with the dawn chorus of bird song. The mist from the river snaked through the trees, leaving a chill in the air. Nickolas stepped out and stretched, reaching above his head, then extended his wings to their full span, slowly flapping them as he woke up. Turning as Christoff walked up to him, he settled them with a snap. “You ready to go?”
“Yes, let’s get this over with.”
Nickolas could tell that Chris hadn’t actually believed his own encouragement. His brother didn’t really think Jessica still lived. But the more he focused his thoughts on her, the more Nickolas was sure she was still alive. His heart a little lighter, he spread his wings and took off into the brightening sky.
They flew low over the river, each scanning a side until they reached the point where she’d fallen in. Alighting on the precipice, Nickolas looked at the twenty foot drop.
Disturbed dirt marred the vegetation below them. Fortunately, there weren’t any large boulders on the water’s edge here. “Alright Chris, same as last night, you take the far bank.”
They took off. Sweeping his wings in powerful strokes, Nickolas followed the river down its course looking for any sign that she left the water. Strange certainty aside, he really wanted to see a muddy bank. He wasn’t thrilled at the thought of finding scraps of her clothing… or her body.
What was it about this recovery? Granted, she had pulled off the unexpected in getting away from them, but something about this situation pulled at him. He didn’t know this woman, yet he found himself really worried about her, and the depth of his emotional involvement surprised him. It’s bloody freezing in there. If she managed to get out of the river it had to be fairly quick or she would have succumbed to hypothermia. That’s still a worry anyway; her tracks are barefoot. And the glimpse I caught of her showed that she wasn’t dressed for outside. The only thing in our favor is that her metabolism will be running on high, so it should help keep her warm. But that’s a double-edged sword. It also means she’s going to need food, and soon.
Scuff marks at the water’s edge caught his attention. He dropped down and landed. Well I’ll be damned. She made it out. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Nickolas quickly examined her trail. The tracks clearly showed where she’d pulled herself out of the river and onto the bank before continuing her flight into the woods. He drew his phone out of his pocket and texted his brother.
Christoff landed in a flurry of wing beats and crouched down to take a look at the ground himself. That didn’t surprise Nickolas, since his brother was the better tracker.
“Well, at least we know she made it out.” Chris said looking up at him. “Now, if she hasn’t succumbed to hypothermia and blood loss then we’ll be in luck.” He swiped a spot in the mud then held up his red coated finger. “She’s still losing blood. This much can’t be from the lacerations on her feet.”
Frowning, Nickolas punched Flynn’s number on his phone. “Flynn, she made it out of the river and is, incredibly, still on the move. Get back on the main road and wait for my call.”
“Well at least it’s an easy trail, Nick. Look at all the debris she’s leaving behind.” Christoff waved his hand up the hill, showing the torn up ground and broken branches she had left in her wake. “She’s definitely not trying to hide which direction she went in, is she?”
Something about his brother’s comment nagged at him. It circled through his head as he ran at Christoff’s heels. The direction of the morning sun as it slanted through the trees gave him the clue he needed. He stopped suddenly and looked around to get his bearings, then back down the trail. “Damn. I don’t believe this.” He shook his head and smiled slightly. She certainly had her wits about her. Nickolas looked at his brother waiting a few feet ahead of him. “No Chris, she’s not wasting any time on hiding. Clever, very clever.”
Nickolas pulled his phone out. “Flynn, return to her house immediately. Her trail is heading straight back home. Be careful. If she has any weapons she could be dangerous. It’s time to raise priority on this. Alert the Facility, and let them know this is no longer a simple retrieval. She’s gone feral.”
“Copy that, Nickolas, we’re on the way.”
“Come on, Chris. Let’s find a space clear enough to get into the air.”
The two Valkyries dropped down into her back yard. From the outside, the house looked no different than when they had left several hours ago. Nickolas followed his brother as they approached the back porch, waiting tensely while Christoff checked the door. The knob turned easily and Chris cast a quick look back at him before he pushed the door open and leaned inside to listen. A second later they walked into the kitchen.
“Well, you were right, Nicky. She did come back.” Christoff gestured at the muddy, bloodstained clothes that trailed out of the room.
“She came back, but where is she now? This house feels empty.” Nickolas shook his head.
“Maybe she’s finally passed out?”
“Uh huh. Somehow I don’t believe that, Chris. Why don’t you check the rest of the house? I’m going to go and have a look at her bedroom.”
Nickolas walked out of the kitchen. The lights were all still on throughout the building. Nickolas was sure Jessica was no longer here. He couldn’t feel her presence. When the team had first arrived he could feel her, even when she had been outside watching them. This time there was just a faint echo.
Her bedroom door was open. Nickolas stopped on the threshold. The room was not how he had left it last night. Clothing was strewn across the bed and other possessions were knocked to the floor or upturned that had been in their proper places before.
“Well, Nick,” Christoff called from the other room. “The showers wet and empty med supplies are scattered about.”
“She ransacked her clothes as well.” Nickolas looked into her closet. Ok, little fox, where to now?
He paced the room sifting through her possessions. A damp towel hanging over the back of a chair drew his attention. He brushed his fingers across the nappy surface and a jolt tingled in his fingertips. The amount of blood on the fabric bothered him. He picked it up and rubbed at a spot, then hissed. Suddenly, he was no longer looking at the towel but a vision of its owner. The sight was so real he felt like he could reach out and touch her, talk to her. She sat on the bed, awake, fear etched into her sleep clouded eyes. Her emotions blasted into him. He felt her fear and uncertainty, her desperation… her determination.
Overwhelmed by the stimuli, Nickolas lost his balance and fell against the bed, dropping the towel in the process. The image vanished along with the feelings.
What the Hell?
“Hey Nicky, you alright?”
Jerking around, Nickolas stared at Christoff. His brother stood in the doorway watching him.
Disoriented, Nickolas rubbed his bloody fingers against his jeans. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He looked back down at the towel then cleared his throat. “Did you find anything else?” He skirted past Christoff, ignoring his brother’s look of concern.
Chris didn’t answer until they were in the hall. “Not really. It looks like she might have grabbed some stuff from the kitchen, but if so it was in a hurry. She couldn’t have been here for that long. I’m surprised she got out before us, actually.”
“She does seem to have a knack for staying one step ahead so far, doesn’t she?” Nickolas followed his Second out the front door but he stopped on the steps to the porch and turned back. His mind drifted to the image he’d seen in her room. The surge of sympathy he felt for her took him by surprise, and he quickly tamped it back down as useless. It really didn’t matter if he understood her feelings. It didn’t change what he had to do.
“Nickolas?” His brother said behind him.
Something about the porch seemed different. He pulled his wits together and tried to place it. Christoff took a step back up the stairs to stand next to him. “Something’s missing Chris. Wasn’t there a bicycle tucked behind that planter?”
“Yes, I think you’re right.”
Christoff turned and followed his brother back down the steps. He watched Nick closely as they joined Flynn at the van. His Alpha was hiding something.
Flynn pushed away from the vehicle and opened the door for them.
“Well?” The older man questioned.
“She was here alright.” Christoff said. “She got cleaned up, packed a bag and took off.” He followed Nickolas into the van. Folding his wings in tight to his body, he took his seat. Ian had drilled into all of them over the years to be alert for changes in Nickolas’ demeanor. So far there had been three breaks in his Alpha’s normally self-contained and controlled manner. The coincidence of it starting right after that strange surge he felt when they entered her house put him on edge. At first he shrugged it off to both of them being tired and worried, but it was too much.
“And, she’s no longer on foot.” Nickolas added. “A bicycle is missing from the porch.”
Christoff reached back and pulled his seat belt across his body. Pinning his wings down grated on him. Normally it didn’t bother him too badly but this morning he could barely tolerate it. He took a deep breath. Maybe he shouldn’t be worried just about Nickolas. I hadn’t realized how fuzzy my mind has been. He felt like he was waking up after a very long sleep. He hadn’t felt like this since…
Before I changed.
The thought surprised him and he looked again at his brother. Neither of them had taken their pills this morning. That could account for Nickolas’ odd behavior, though it’s a little early to consider that. Nick sat so still that it gave him the impression that his Alpha could shatter at any moment. No matter how false the impression, it still worried him. He hadn’t seen behavior like this from his brother in years, not since he came out of the Hub.
Christoff felt his protective instincts continue to rise. Nick hadn’t buckled his belt, which didn’t surprise him. If I can’t take the feeling, he must be going crazy. At least he’s controlling his claustrophobia.
His thoughts continued to circle while he picked apart Nick’s behavior. Finally he shook his head. This is silly. I’m just overreacting. Normally by this time I would have made at least two sarcastic remarks. Instead I’m inventing issues for Nick. But the nebulous feeling made the rationalizations difficult to stick. The feeling that something wasn’t quite right wouldn’t go away.
This is just an unusual situation. They’d broken off of their normal routine, and no one had thought about what that meant… yet. Well, I’m certainly not going to remind anyone. I can’t stand those pills.
“Boss, HQ has been calling for an update on the situation here,” Jules announced, drawing Christoff’s mind back to the here and now.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Nickolas replied. “What started as a standard retrieval has turned into a potentially deadly, feral manhunt. We haven’t had one of those in a long time.” His brother closed his eyes, letting his head fall back into the seat.
Jules tapped a button on the earphone in his ear and turned to look at one of the screens on his bank of equipment. Then he punched a few keys before swiveling away from the console to face them again.
“Actually, Nickolas,” Flynn commented from the drivers’ seat. “I don’t think there has ever been a situation quite like this one. The hunts you’re thinking of were all for fully fledged Valkyries, not one who had just started the change. Any fledge who has manage to slip by a recovery team has always been apprehended within a couple of hours. Miss Reuther has been running for close to eight now. Definitely a record.”
“Why hasn’t she passed out of the active phase? That’s what I’d like to know. She should be so tired she can’t keep her eyes open. I don’t know what to expect from her. She shouldn’t have been able to escape us like she has.” Sighing, Nickolas opened his eyes and sat up. “Well, I’d better get it over with.” Nickolas took the head set Jules held out to him and settled it over his head. “Ok Jules.”
Christoff could hear static from where he was sitting, so he wasn’t surprised to see Nickolas wince before a voice came on too softly for him to make out the conversation.
“Yes, this is Nickolas. There have been some difficulties. She’s gone feral.” Pause. “No, tell the doctors I have no idea. Ian will just have to wait until we get her back because I haven’t a clue.” Pause. “I do know she has injuries, but to what extent is still unclear. Yes, that’s probably a good idea. I need more information than what the retrieval documents contain. A picture would be nice, yes.” Nickolas rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Yes I agree.” Pause. “Tell them I don’t know that either. Good. We’ll let you know if anything changes. Yes, fine.”
Nickolas yanked the headset off and flung it onto Jules’ console before he turned back to them. “They are sending more teams out to help. The doctors are amazed at what she’s done. She is now a level one priority. Ian wants her caught before she kills herself or makes it out to the mountains, where the feral colony is. She’s too strong to let fall into their hands.”
Christoff caught Nickolas’ eyes and raised an eyebrow, calling attention to his brother’s unusual behavior but Nickolas just glared at him, telling him silently to shut up. He smiled, relieved at something so normal as annoying his older brother, and sat back to watch Jules swivel around to grab the new printout he was receiving. The comm. tech handed the sheaf to Nickolas.
His brother shuffled through them for a moment, “They’ve given us more to go on to track her now. Her name is Jessica Reuther. She’s twenty-five years old. Weighs about one hundred twenty five pounds, five foot one inch tall. Slender, brown eyes and brown hair. Worn long. She works in a bookstore at the mall a couple of miles from here. Easy biking distance…so I think that’s the direction we should take, she’ll likely stay to familiar paths. They faxed over her driver’s license.”
Christoff took the page and examined her picture. The dry description the Facility supplied didn’t do the woman justice. There was intelligence in her eyes that even the grainy bureaucratic photo couldn’t hide. Handing it on, Christoff watched Nickolas’ reaction as the other two looked at it. It was subtle. Chris didn’t think Flynn or Jules noticed anything different in his brother’s behavior; he probably wouldn’t either if he wasn’t already watching so closely. Something about their quarry was getting to him.
“Nickolas,” Jules said. “The Facility sent out five more teams last night just in case, they’re waiting for a destination.”
“Let’s start with the mall. Regardless of how erratic she’s responding, her thinking is still going to be compromised. She’ll find it easier to stick to familiar routes.”
“Nickolas, her bike was bright red. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.” Flynn called out from the driver’s seat.
Jessica merged her bike into the stream of morning traffic and smiled tiredly at the sun that rose over the water in the distance. What a beautiful morning. I love sunrises. Especially in the Northwest. Almost on autopilot, she jockeyed with the cars on the road, taking a route that had become second nature to her over the years she’d worked in the area. Two cars honked crankily at her as she dodged between them. She waved, then veered off into the parking lot of the mall.
Wheeling up to the bike rack, she dismounted and hauled the bike in, securing it. A quick scan of the nearly deserted lot showed no sign of the Hunters in the vicinity. “Good, maybe I’m still one step ahead of them?”
Jessica stretched her injured leg a moment, before she crossed the two lanes of disabled parking that separated the bike rack from the door and entered the mall. Too many people. Her skin crawled with their nearness. There shouldn’t be that many here yet. We only opened a half hour ago. She kept her face turned away from the people she passed, hitched her backpack higher up her shoulder and worked to avoid the familiar faces. Her regular shift started later in the day, so an early sighting could cause questions.
The effort it took to keep her mind from wandering sapped her already tested energy reserves. She slid around a knot of window admirers and entered the food court, the far end of which housed the location of the nearest ATM. Her stomach growled aggressively at the scents of cooking food and Jessica had to pause grinding her teeth at the sudden nausea that accompanied the hunger pains. She looked across the gauntlet of food venders and saw the machine she needed.
Averting her face from the food handlers who knew her by sight, she walked over to the ATM and breathed a shaky sigh of relief for making it this far. Going through the motions she punched in her pin number.
“I’m sorry, access to this account has been denied. Please try again later.” The screen stated, refusing the transaction.
Jessica stared at the machine. It wouldn’t recognize her. But I have money. Her card popped back out and her sluggish mind tried to work through what had just happened. I have money, I don’t…
Crap, they got here first. That’s the only explanation. Now what am I going to do? I need money.
Dismayed and in shock, she looked furtively at the people around her for any sign one of them might be part of a recovery team. She stuffed her card and wallet back into her bag, and slung it over her shoulder. Her focus narrowed. She was prey. And now the Hunters would have a fix on her. I have to get out of here. They’ve shut my account down. They have to know I’ve tried to access it. Her heart beat heavily in her throat as she retraced her steps to retrieve her bike. Hyper aware of every person she passed.
She reached the glass wall of doors, and had already pushed one open, when she looked out across the concrete and stopped cold. Surrounding her bike were the two Hunters who had pursued her last night, along with at least eight other people. More men with radios converged on them from different parts of the parking lot.
“Crap” she muttered under her breath, “This really is turning out to not be my day isn’t it.” There goes my bike, damn it. Why did May have to take the car this week?
Letting the door swing shut, she turned and ran back into the mall, not caring anymore if she was noticed. Ok, what’s the best way out of here? Can’t hide in any of the stores, they’ll sniff me out. There’s no doubt those two Hunters have my scent. They have enough people with them to close off all the exits. I need to get out an unwatched door. Racing back through the food court, she ran out the doors on the other side and stopped abruptly on the sidewalk. If I only knew how to hot wire a car. She stared longingly at all the locked vehicles. I need transportation; I can’t out run them here. It’s too open. If those two take to the air I’m toast. Hoping for some means of escape, she grinned when a bus pulled up. Perfect. That will work nicely.
Fidgeting, she waited impatiently for the passengers to disembark and tried not to look around too much and draw attention to herself. Once clear, she climbed the steps and reached a hand into her pants pocket, pulling out the last of her change. With only the slightest hesitation she dropped it in the meter. She flashed a tentative smile at the driver then moved to a seat in the back and hunched down.
Come on bus get a move on, before they think to stop you.
“I’d bet anything that’s it, Nickolas.” Flynn said.
The van cruised to a stop next to a bicycle rack and Nickolas jumped out. He examined the bicycle chained to the bars. “I think you’re right, Flynn.” He started to run his hand over the metal but jerked away as if it burned him, blinking at the flash of vision that wasn’t his own. Christoff joined him and cocked his head, raising an eyebrow at the odd movement. Nickolas blanked his eyes to hide his confusion.
His brother shrugged and knelt down near the bicycle. “Her scent is definitely on it. Do you want me to do an aerial search?”
Nickolas scanned the pedestrians in the parking lot and shook his head. “No, hold off a minute. Here comes Beta team.” The door to the van opened and Jules stuck his head out as the newcomers arrived.
“Nick, Command reports that someone just tried to access Miss Reuther’s bank account from an ATM inside the mall.”
A jolt of excitement shot through him and Nickolas smiled as he turned to Everett, the Beta teams’ leader.
“We got the same call, Nick.” Everett looked at his team. “We left Epsilon, Theta, and Gamma on the other side of the mall.”
“Good. Everett, you coordinate with them and make sure all exits are controlled. You have her picture, but don’t make contact unless there’s no other choice. Radio me as soon as she’s located. Delta you’re with us. We search the interior. Let’s go flush the quarry.”
They crossed the last bit of parking lot and swept into the mall, pausing just inside the entrance. Nickolas watched Beta team secure the doors then turned to the leader of Delta. “Danny, take your team and search the north side of the complex, we’ll take the south.”
Nodding, Danny led his people off at a brisk pace taking a left at the main corridor. “Flynn, you and Jules start here. Chris and I will go find the ATM she tried to use.”
“Right, Nickolas.” Flynn said. The two quickly disappeared into the nearest shop.
Nickolas paced down the corridor with Christoff. He regulated his breathing, letting the fear the shoppers projected pass through him. His brother was already suspicious. He didn’t need Chris gaining more ammo from his reactions, and then feel the need to inform Ian. This recovery mission kept throwing surprises in his path. I have to figure out what is going on. Why am I suddenly having outside feelings shoved down my throat? And what does Jessica Reuther have to do with it?
He strengthened his stride and focused on trying not to show his internal struggle. So he looked for a distraction.
“You know, Chris? I really hate feeling like a leper. Look at them recoil from us. It’s not like we’re going to eat them or something.”
“They recognize a recovery team that’s all, Nick. And when two Hunters are obviously involved they really don’t want to get in the way. It scares them, not knowing who we’ve come for. Not knowing if they’ll be next.”
“I know,” he sighed, scanning the crowd. “But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the fear, the avoidance.” He ignored the hushed conversations around him. The tide of humanity parted before the two Valkyries. They walked into the food court atrium, side by side. Across the room, Nickolas spotted the ATM next to the doors. “There it is. I’ll go check it out. You take her picture around to the vendors.”
“Right, sounds good.”
He dismissed Chris from his thoughts, his attention immediately zeroing in on the cash machine. A tight knot formed in his gut as he crossed the atrium.
He stared at the ATM. A pattern of events settled in his mind. Each time the visions had come upon him unawares. This time he knew he courted them.
He really didn’t want to touch the ATM. He braced himself, then slowly reached out and placed his palm on the keypad of the machine. Similar to the episode in her bed room, only not nearly as strong, he received a wave of feeling. His fingers smoothed over the keys.
The spike of fear was first. That must be when she realized we’d closed down access to her accounts. This time Nickolas made an attempt to control what he received. Closing his eyes, he concentrated and was rewarded with a jumbled vision to supplement the wash of feelings. Opening his eyes, Nickolas removed his hand. “Well that didn’t help much.”
“What didn’t help?” Christoff asked as he walked up. “I believe this is the only ATM in the mall, so it has to be the one she used. The food vendors I showed her picture to all recognized her of course, since she works here, but none of them had seen her today.”
“Oh she was definitely here. Just not long enough for me to get a fix on where she went after trying to get money out of the machine. Why don’t we show her picture some more, and ask the shop keepers between here and the door where her bike was parked.”
“Tracing her scent from such a brief encounter was chancy at best, you know that Nick.”
Nickolas shrugged his shoulders and started to walk back the way they’d come. He caught Christoff’s shrewd gaze assessing him. His eyes full of questions that Nickolas didn’t want to deal with. I guess I didn’t hide it as well as I’d hoped. Crap.
The arrival of Flynn and Jules served as a good distraction. He waved them over and said quietly to his brother, “I’ll find out what they’ve discovered, Chris. You start with the vendors on the aisle. I’ll catch up.”
Irritation poured off Christoff. Refusal formed in his eyes and Nickolas sighed. “Go, Chris.”
Christoff’s wings flared but he turned without a word to go attend the task given to him.
I’m not going to be able to hold him off. Nickolas closed his eyes, then blanking his expression, he turned to greet the other two members of his team.
“So? Any sign?”
“Nothing yet, Nickolas. Nobody remembers seeing her today. And she isn’t hiding out in any of the stores we checked either. Though maybe your better nose could sniff her out?”
“Not likely, Flynn, we may have a better sense of smell but the trail is thin here and there are a lot of other people around.”
“Nick.” Christoff snapped. ”Over here.”
Nickolas felt a growl form in his throat but he suppressed it. Instead, they all walked over to where Christoff stood next to a man who sold baseball caps from a free standing stall.
“Yeah, I saw her.” The man said when Nickolas and the others arrived. “Bright red shoes caught my eye, besides I thought she was pretty hot.” He flushed and looked away briefly. “All that hair, wow. Anyway, she walked over to the teller down there. Did her thing, and then walked back past me. When she got to the doors,” he jerked his chin at the entrance nearest the bike rack, “She just stood in the open door for a moment, before turning around and running across the mall like all the hounds of hell were after her. Which, I guess they are.” The man cleared his throat nervously when Nickolas narrowed his eyes at him and Christoff growled low in his throat. “Well, she ran out the far entrance nearest the food court. Then you guys came in.”
“Nick, I saw a bus through the glass leaving just as the door was secured.” Jules said.
“That pretty girl is regressing, just like you guys?” The man asked tactlessly. “What a shame.”
A savage growl erupted from his brother a second before Christoff slammed his hands down on the counter of the kiosk to lean in toward the man. “You should watch it. You might be next. You never know.” The Hunter growled into the man’s pale face.
“Christoff!” Flynn snapped.
Nickolas placed a restraining hand on his brother’s tense arm and spoke quietly, “Not now, Chris. Leash it. All right, Jules get me the bus routes. I want that bus stopped and searched. Flynn, coordinate with the other teams, I need a group in here to finish the search. Just because we think she left, we shouldn’t leave it to chance that she hasn’t circled back.” Flynn and Jules ran off and Nickolas turned back to the vendor giving the man a cold stare. “Beware what you say to a Hunter. For you might live to become one. Thank you for your help.”
Nickolas tugged on Christoff’s arm, pulling him away from the frightened vendor, giving his brother a growl of his own when he resisted briefly. “You feeling ok, Chris?”
“Yes, just a little irritable. Sorry.” His brother replied curtly.
When they reached the van Jules popped out. “Hey boss, the bus route was sixteen. Gamma team is on its way to stop it now.”
“Tell them to secure it, but to wait for our arrival before boarding.”
They pulled up next to the county bus. Nickolas got out of the van and looked the situation over. The bus had pulled over to the side of the road, its four ways flashing, the four members of Gamma team surrounding it like statues, tranquilizer rifles at rest. The pinched faces of the passengers looked out of the windows. “Any trouble Jeff?”
“Nope. No one has tried to leave.”
Nodding, Nickolas walked over to the bus and knocked on it. The frightened bus driver opened the door and Nickolas stepped up to the platform. He rocked back on his heels from the fear rolling out of the vehicle. He had to clear his voice before words would come out. “We just need to check for a passenger.” He reassured the driver, before waving Christoff by. Nickolas pulled out the photo of Jessica and handed it to the driver. “Have you seen this woman?”
The driver nodded his head. “I let her off a couple of stops ago.” He said quietly, handing the picture back.
The driver swallowed, then said faintly, “The corner of main and thirty-second.”
“She’s not here, Nick.” Christoff called from the back.
“I know, come on.”
Stepping off the bus, Nickolas walked up to Jeff. “Get your team and follow us. She got off a few stops ago.”
Back in the van, Nickolas gave Flynn the directions as he flopped down into his seat, Christoff following suit. Jules turned to look at him, his hand pressed to his ear as he listened to the reports coming in. Nickolas caught a flash of something indefinable from the Tech, but in a blink it was gone. “Danny reports that they have finished searching the mall and she isn’t there.” He said.
Not really surprised, Nickolas replied, “Tell all teams to meet us at the corner of main and thirty-second. We’re going to need to go door to door and canvas the neighborhood. Also, have the Facility send out Jays and the med unit. She’s been on the run for…” He looked at his watch. “Twelve hours now. By the time we finally get her in custody, she’s going to need his tender mercies.”
“How long do you think she can keep this up, Nick? I doubt if she’s had much food. No sleep. She’s injured from the run and the swim last night, and she’s only started to change. That requires great quantities of both sleep and meat. Red meat.” Christoff sighed.
Nickolas shook his head. “I just don’t know, Chris. I’m amazed she’s made it this far. I don’t know what to expect next.”