Fiona knocked her glass back, swallowing its smoky contents in a single gulp. She’d gone for the tequila, some esoteric moonshiner’s blend with a black baby snake swimming at the bottom. Her eyes watered from the sting of fire racing down her throat.
“You have to know how to fully appreciate these things, you know.” Carmella declared, watching her newly found friend, her avid eyes swimming with the same flavor of salty wet. She slid her glass forward on the table, silently demanding more. “A really good drink slides down like mud with as much intent to please you as to kill you, right?”
It’s not that Fiona couldn’t argue with her companion’s skewed logic. She just didn’t care to go to the trouble. As far as the compulsive chain smoker was concerned, we each pick our own poison and that’s the end of that. More importantly, how many girls like Carmella here ever showed up at a riverside bar in the boondocks? Not many, that’s for sure.
The green-eyed little bombshell had been a godsend that arrived in the dead of night, seeking relief from the throbbing warmth like some pilgrim fumbling about in the dark. She handled her liquor well too. It was taking a helluva lot to tank her.
“I should have taken off sooner.” Carmella giggled, obliging Fiona with a slightly unsteady hand. “My aunt did the same thing years ago, you know? In her old journals, she wrote that she’d probably travel this route. I guess that’s how I ended up here. God, I miss her.” She stopped laughing. “You know what’s weird? You kinda look like her.”
“People who look like me are a dime a dozen.” Fiona quickly denied, knocking back another shot. “Chalk it up to coincidence or something.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?” More laughter bubbled forth from Carmella. “Really, if you were ten years older I’d have mistaken you for her. Ten years younger and I’d be convinced you and I are cousins. I’ll swear it up and down if you like.”
“No need.” Something hungry inside Fiona twisted. The slow flow of the moving wet outside was roaring in her head now.
She smiled across the counter. “Hear that?” She poured the next drink. “They say that on some nights, the river sounds just like a snake shedding its skin.” She took a gulp, set her glass down. She gathered Carmella’s hands into her own. “What do you think of that?”
Head level with Carmella’s; she trapped the lovely wanderer with her magnetic gaze. She saw the uncertain frown, the way Carmella wavered. Fiona released her slender fingers abruptly. Her mouth tightened but she poured another glass and shoved her impatience back into its cage until they shucked the warmth of the wood-walled bar.
Because Carmella was getting to falling down drunk, Fiona was only too eager to offer to put her up for the night. “Don’t tell me that you’re going to try to drive in your present state.” A chiding frown and that was all the convincing that she needed to do.
“Aren’t you going to lock up?” Carmella eyed the bar’s remaining patron as they stumbled outside.
The dust-laden biker looked like he’d gone to hell and back a few times before passing through. Fiona could feel him watching them quietly from the darkest corner while nursing a single drink.
“Don’t worry about him.” The dark beauty scowled. Something about him rankled but she was too preoccupied to hazard a guess at what that was. “We get drifters of all kinds all the time. No skin off my back letting them take shelter from time to time.”
They headed further down the dirt road and a little deeper into the woods until Fiona’s cottage came into view. It was a ramshackle affair with jalousie windows and those weird gingham curtains with the stiff, calico frills lining the edges. It squatted on stilts that sank into the rich, loamy soil and stank of rot when it rained.
Yeah, Fiona decided. Just about everything around here was starting to stink just like that. It was time to move on. Long past.
Carmella was rambling on about some freaky chick she knew from college. Fiona barely caught the tail end. She wasn’t even sure how they’d gotten on to this subject.
“And then she said,” Carmella cackled. “If trepanning was still a cure-all, I’d be fucking first in line. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Anyway, she was into pain. Chains. Whips. The whole nine yards and I think maybe–“
Something cold and hard whizzed by Fiona’s ear. She heard the sickening crunch of bone, the gurgling groan of a last breath that came with a quick death.
The thing that just pierced Carmella had come arcing down out of the star-full dark, a javelin of all things. Like an answer to a prayer. Sure as hell not Fiona’s though. It was shiny and sleek, like something new that had been ripped out of its bubble wrap just for her.
“Seriously?” Exasperated and not to mention disappointed, Fiona sank down on to her haunches. “Is this supposed to be the twenty-first century or what?”
She squinted up at the standing corpse’s profile. Carmella hadn’t felt a thing, Fiona was sure. She’d been impaled from head to toe, with an insane sort of precision. The meat mannequin that had been so bright and inviting was utterly ruined and presently shedding blood and bits of brains for tears.
Gruesome as it was, this was probably a small mercy though. What Fiona originally had planned for the pretty wanderer would have been more agonizing and horrifying beyond human imagination.
The sound of boots crunching down on dirt and twigs came close. The shady biker from Fiona’s bar eyed the stricken corpse. “Looks like I missed. Looks like you’re screwed either way now, though.”
Fiona managed a cold smile, biting back the disappointment and desperation welling up inside. “Funny how that shit works.”
Under other circumstances, she might have been charmed by the lazy, almost lyrical cadence of his voice. The hunter was the unassuming type with skin darkened by dust from the road, worn jeans and a shirt that had seen one too many washings. Nice leather jacket though. He was carrying a crossbow, taut and poised to strike.
“Your face is slumping,” he said. “Kinda went downhill fast, dontcha think? It was passable just a minute ago. I guess that body’s too long past its expiration date. Serves you right for holding out for the shiny, new prize. You could have saved yourself the trouble and jacked some other loser’s bones hours ago.”
“You think I want to hear that from the likes of you?” she grumbled. “Some nerve you’ve got coming after me in the first place.”
“My bad,” he had the nerve to toss her a careless grin. “Just happened to be passing through and you caught my eye what with the sagging skin, circles under the eyes. That dead smell. I had you pegged for a vamp. You know. One of those newly turned rancid wannabes? But this,” he stepped out of the brush and onto the moonlit path. “An honest-to-god skin dancer, now that’s rare. Makes for one hell of a trophy.”
“It does that.” She gave him that. “You could even say you’ve got me right where you want me.”
He did indeed, have her cornered. It wasn’t like she could just scamper away in her current state. Not that she intended to. The solution to her predicament, distasteful as it was, obligingly stood right in front of her. She cast a regretful glance at the skewered blonde. She’d been so damned pretty. It was such a pity really.
Still, predilections were one thing. Survival was another matter entirely.
“Now all you have to do is,” she smiled sweetly. “Make sure you don’t blink.”
Naturally, he did just that. In an instant she closed the distance between them. She stopped barely a hair’s breadth away. Too late, he realized his mistake.
“You’re right,” she murmured. “I am picky but in pinch, even you’ll do.”
He gave her that pained, shocked look. You know the one: easily mistaken for the shock of betrayal, but it had more to do with the clawed hand that had ripped a hole into his gut. His mouth opened. He was shaking. Couldn’t even scream. There was a sweet pop as she deftly and effortlessly twisted his spine.
“I guess I could stand wearing a hunter’s skin for a while. Fashion sense generally sucks, but…” her gaze flicked down the ground to where the crossbow had slipped out of his crimson splattered fingers. “They do have the coolest gear.”