Last Exit (Excerpt)

Chapter 1

I struggled to get the “Closed” sign open. It popped out of my hand and clattered to my feet. Damn Cecil and these cheap-assed open/closed signs. I had warned him. Told him you get what you pay for. He’d gone behind my back and bought them anyway.

Calm down. Cecil and the signs weren’t the whole problem. They weren’t even that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. The tension aching between my shoulder blades came from another source. I cut off the train of thought. Not now. I’d have to live through the dreaded event soon enough.

I focused on the night sky. A cloud cover rendered it starless and murky. It had been one of those blustery, windy days with a high chance of rain in the weather forecast. If my poor aching bones were right, this storm would usher in the first cool weather of autumn. We needed the break. That gorgeous Texas Hill Country sky blazed hot enough to melt glass by the end of summer.

But I wished the rain could wait until tomorrow, after Tanner and I finished our little errand. The flood of worries came again. I slammed the door shut on them. Best not to dwell on it. It wouldn’t do any good. I picked up the sign to try again.

Wind whipped my hair into my face, delivered stinging lashes to my cheeks. I ignored it and put some muscle into my task. The wind strengthened. It caught the sign and slammed it closed on my thumb. I bit back an ugly word and let the sign fall to the dirt again.

Injured finger clutched to my chest, I glanced around to see who’d been watching. A few Summervale revelers glanced in my direction. None showed any interest.

They had other things on their minds. Though Samhain was still five days away, many wore costumes. Their excitement lent a mystical charge to the air. Everyone had a spring in their step, drawn by the moon and the shadows that lurked in the darkness. 

A woman wearing a red leotard, tail sewn on the ass, came toward me. She’d attached manufactured goat horns to her head. She held the chubby hand of a toddler wearing a purple and gold satin costume and a pointed hat with bells on it.

I smiled at the kid. She—or he, the costume made it hard to tell for sure—gave me that wide-eyed stare kids give strangers. I nodded to the mother.

“Too cute.” I pointed at the kid.

She giggled her thanks and kept walking, probably afraid I was going to try to pull her into my tent and take her money. If only. I stared at the tent where Tanner ran his arcane items business. Usually I loved hanging out with my scorching hot boyfriend. But I had a bad feeling about what we had planned for tonight.

My worried thoughts swelled. They tapped at my defenses and begged to come out to play. I gave up and let them come.

Some friends of Tanner’s from California were in Texas. Staying at a hotel in Austin, not too far away. Tanner and I would be going to visit them shortly.

But that wasn’t what worried me. It was the way Tanner had acted about the whole thing. He had told me just that morning over breakfast. After everybody was at the table. So I couldn’t ask many questions. Worse, his invite to tag along was half-hearted.

I could have just refused to go. But no woman can resist that sort of bait. We live on curiosity. And we have to know the whole story, even when it would be best if we didn’t. I had a gut feeling this whole adventure would end badly. But there was nothing I could do other than play it out.

So I did the only thing I could. I snatched that el-cheapo sign off the ground and put my anxiety into it, forcing it open, even bending the frame a little. I attached it to the little pole that would keep it from blowing away.

A loud clap of thunder forced my attention off the blasted sign. I stared into the impenetrable night. Lightning flashed. Carnival goers shrieked and gasped. They scattered like a pack of buzzards surprised by a car. The dirt throughway emptied. Except for one person. Her eyes locked with mine.

Time stopped. My heart crawled into my throat and lodged there. I held up my hands in a warding off gesture. 

“No. You’re dead,” I whimpered. Unable to stand it another second, I scooted back into my tent and closed the flap. Mouth cotton dry, I went back over what I had seen.

Barbie. Standing there giving me that evil glare she reserved for when I’d committed a mortal sin. My mother had been a bitch, a thief, and a murderer. She had abused me and abandoned me as a child. Was she my personal boogieman? Probably.

Acknowledging the havoc and pain my own mother had wreaked in my life put me back in control. The logical side of my brain took over. Barbie was dead. I had watched her die. If I had really seen her, she was a ghost. In which case, I had the upper hand.

Not only was I a powerful spirit medium, I was a witch. And not just any witch. Mohawk—that sleaze bucket—had called me the Gregorius Witch. I didn’t know quite what that meant but the name gave me a tingle of power unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I, Peri Jean Mace, would go back outside my tent and banish Barbie. I would fling her into the deepest, darkest pit, and she would never find her way out. Then I’d go with Tanner to meet his friends. Get the mystery over with. I pushed my shoulders back and marched toward the tent flap. Just as I reached it, someone came inside.

I screamed and backpedaled. My feet tangled together, and I pitched to the ground. I landed with a grunt and raised my arms to protect my head. Now it would happen. My mother’s ghost would kick me. She would pound me with freezing fists.

“Are you okay, honey?” The voice didn’t belong to Barbie. Relief flooded me.

I raised my head to see who my visitor was. Queenie, a witch from Natchitoches, Louisiana. Someone I trusted way more than my mother’s ghost. I climbed to my feet, brushing off my pants and trying to retain my dignity. Impossible task. I’d just busted my ass in front of her.

So I sucked it up and forced a smile to my face. “Miz Queenie! What are you doing so far from Natchitoches?”

She gripped me in a hug and kissed both my cheeks. “All week long, I had a feeling I needed to come see you.” 

She let go of me and set her quilted bag on top of my séance table. From it she withdrew a smaller cloth pouch, which she laid on the table. She turned back to me, smiling, but it wasn’t a comforting smile. Her faded eyes, darting around my tent, said she had serious business with me. 

“Are you here about the Wanderer?” Nervous tendrils spread through my stomach. This was even worse than meeting Tanner’s friends.

I didn’t know who—or what—the Wanderer was. But Cecil and Queenie both seemed to think he could relieve me of the spell blocking me from the full power of Priscilla Herrera’s mantle. No telling what kind of horror that experience had in store for me.

“I think it might be,” Queenie smiled. From the cloth pouch she pulled a deck of Tarot cards. “I’ll pass on his message by reading your cards. Are you game?”

I glanced at my cell phone. Two minutes until it was time to meet Tanner. Any other time, I’d have messaged him and told him to go on without me. But I wanted to see firsthand what he didn’t want me to see. On the other hand, whatever Queenie had for me could save my life. I shoved the phone back in my pocket.

“Of course I have time.” I went to the séance table and sat down.

Queenie took the chair across from me. The two candles I kept on the table flamed to life. I jerked with surprise. Queenie, acting as though she hadn’t seen, calmly shuffled the cards three times. She set them in front of me. “Cut them, please.”

I did as she said, and she directed me to do it two more times. Queenie laid out a spread of three cards in front of me.

“You choose which one to turn over first.”

I let my hand hover over each card. The one on the left made my eyeballs burn. I pointed at it and Queenie turned it up.

The image of a burning tower, a man and woman falling to their deaths in a tossed ocean greeted me. I recoiled. My scant knowledge of Tarot included the meaning of the Tower. My skin tightened.

“Upheaval, clearing the way for something new.” Queenie’s voice raised the hair on the back of my neck. “Turn the next card.”

Again, I passed my hand over the two remaining cards. The one on the right sent a charge of bright energy flowing through me. I pointed to it. Queenie gestured her permission for me to see what waited.

The image on the card turned my stomach. A man lay prostrate, ten swords sticking out of his back. I didn’t know the meaning of this card offhand, but the image was clear enough. Bad shit coming down the sewer pipe.

Queenie stared at me across the table. Her lips trembled. She licked them and spoke. “Ten of Swords. Betrayal. Loss. Ending. Turn over the final card, please.” 

I did as she asked. After the Tower and the Ten of Swords, the sight of the skeletal horseman with his scythe didn’t surprise me. Still, I jumped when Queenie spoke.

“The Death Card. You clear away what is old and used up so that something else can regrow in its place.” She swept a hand over the three cards. 

I did my best to stay calm, but worry fogged my brain. “What would you say the Wanderer’s message is?”

The candle sputtered. Queenie watched it as though it was talking to her. She gulped. Just as I suspected. Nothing good. She took a deep breath and began to speak.

“A storm is coming.” Thunder clapped, underscoring her point. “You’re going to lose things that are very important to you right now. If you survive, you will become someone new.”

Upheavals, losses, death. There’d been so much over the past couple of years. I had lost almost everything there was to lose. The idea of more tragedy coming down the road, headed for me, invoked wild terror. I didn’t see how I could withstand more hardship. I wiped at my face, surprised to find sweat there. 

Queenie reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “None of us relishes upheaval. But it is something each of us must endure. You must learn to believe that you will come out on the other side.” She took her hand off me. “Now as for what it has to do with the Wanderer, he won’t lend his help to you until you reach this point.” She tapped the Death card.

Wordlessly, Queenie packed her tarot cards back into their pouch, which she dropped in her large, quilted bag. She stood from the table. She was done.

“I have a flight out of Austin to Mexico City late tonight. I winter in Mexico each year.” She winked at me. “If I want a quick visit with Cecil and Shelley, I’ll need to hustle.”

She turned and hurried out of my tent. I clambered after her. But by the time I got outside, she was already gone.

I sent her a silent well wish. The early Samhain revelers jostled past me. They had forgotten the coming storm and were back to the business of having fun. Just the few minutes Queenie and I had been inside our tent had called forth even more in costume.

My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out. There was a text message from Tanner on the screen.

“I waited on you a few minutes, but you must’ve changed your mind. See you in a few hours.”

No way. He wasn’t getting off that easily. I ran through the crowd, determined to catch him before he left. Urgency drove my short legs through the pre-Samhain carnival goers, earning more than a little ire. I flashed them glares but didn’t back up my silent threat. Right now, catching Tanner mattered more.

Just about the time my smoke-damaged lungs set up a true protest, I saw Tanner’s broad, squared shoulders going through the carnival exit.

I followed at a dead run, no idea that tonight was the last night I’d ever work for Summervale Carnival. Or that years would go by before I passed through its gates again.

Available June 18, 2018

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