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Damon Nero sat for an hour before Rebecca walked into the narrow, dimly lit bar.
She suppressed a smile and looked over at the bartender. “Vodka and club with a splash of grapefruit.”
The lean woman nodded.
Rebecca turned to Damon. “I haven’t been here in forever.”
“The last dive bar in downtown Hoboken,” Damon said.
They hugged and kissed each other on the cheek.
The bartender set Rebecca’s drink on a napkin. “Would you like to open a tab?”
“I’ll take it on mine,” Damon said. The bartender nodded and wrote on a pad by the register.
Rebecca raised her glass. “To the end of year one of nursing school.”
“To the end,” Damon toasted.
“Did you hear that Mark and Dion are out?” Rebecca asked, setting her glass down on the bar. A slow grin crept across her face.
“To be honest, I’m glad,” Damon said. “From what little I knew of them, I wouldn’t want either of them working on me.”
Rebecca laughed. “It’s scary how quickly people drop off between year one and year two.”
The door opened and a chill rippled through Damon. It was subtle, only something he could sense. He straightened and looked around the bar.
A tall man with a ball cap and a flannel shirt walked in and sat in a corner booth. Damon reached into the man’s thoughts, but found only a common staccato, measure for measure with the concerns of family and money.
“What’s wrong?” Rebecca asked.
“There’s a draft.”
“In May?” she teased. “Do we have low blood pressure?”
“Are you going to check my vitals?”
She ran a finger through her dark hair. “I don’t have my cuff with me.”
“Maybe after the party,” Damon said.
“Right,” Rebecca said. She leaned back in her stool. “What time are we supposed to be there?”
“It started at eight.”
Rebecca checked her phone. “Shit. How far is the house?”
“Right up Hudson.”
They finished their drinks. Damon paid the check and they stepped out into the humid night air. They turned off of Washington onto Second Street toward the water.
“How long have you known them?” Rebecca asked.
“Years now,” Damon said. “Chris and Gracie have played a big role in my life.”
“I’m still not sure how comfortable I am going to a party at one of my clinical instructors’ houses.”
They crossed Second. Damon savored the rare hum of solitude on the often busy street. “Your year is over. It’ll be fine.”
“She’s just a little intense,” she said, then caught herself. “No offense.”
Damon laughed. “She has her moments. Just stay close.”
“Oh.” Rebecca smiled. “How close, exactly?”
They kissed and he felt the two-beat measure of her heart quicken and warm her slightly.
A hard thud blurred his vision.
He fell to a knee.
Rebecca screamed and her delicate melody shattered into discord.
A second hit darkened Damon’s sight into blackness and brought a loud ringing to his ears. Had Damon been mortal, a cracked skull would have been the end of him. But Damon Nero was not only far from mortal, he was far from description. The ringing settled to a dull tone and Damon shook away the last of his cloudiness.
Rebecca’s muffled screams came from up ahead. There was a rustling, followed by silence. Damon followed the screams into the alley that Hoboken called Court Street.
The man in the baseball cap stood over Rebecca’s prone body. He lifted one side of his flannel shirt and pulled an ornate dagger from his belt. The etchings caught Damon’s eye.
The man was a Mithughee, one of many casts of hunters. How did he know where they would be? If he knew enough to go after Rebecca, how did he not mark Damon for what he was? More questions sprang to Damon’s mind, but he decided that the time for answers would come soon enough.
With unseen speed, Damon gripped the man’s wrist and squeezed. Bones popped and cracked.
The man grunted through clenched teeth and the dagger fell to the cobblestone with a single clang.
Damon grabbed the hunter’s throat and slammed his head against a dumpster. The man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. Damon thought the man had died right then and there, but the Mithughee stood on wobbly legs and clenched his fists.
Damon smiled. It had been years since he allowed himself to wear his truer skin. The change wasn’t necessary. Damon knew that, but he allowed himself this one sadistic indulgence.
Damon felt himself grow taller, heavier. Colors, unseeable only seconds before, now alighted everything.
Two spirits stopped their midnight stroll through the ether, instantly aware that they too could be seen. One straightened its coat and cuffs, then hurried its partner along.
The Mithughee’s eyes widened and he stepped back to run in terror. Damon outpaced the wind as he pounced.
Black claws struck forward.
Satisfied with his kill, Damon reverted to his common form and knelt beside Rebecca. A thin line of blood trickled down the side of her face, matting her hair. Thin breaths pushed past her lips.
Damon stalked back to the cooling body of his attacker. Oddly enough, the corpse continued to give off the same pattern of thought. Money. Family. Career. Money. Family. Career.
He pulled the man’s shirt open and found a small pendant on a chain. It had the symbol of the Mithughee on it, but held an opal in its center. The stone repeated its mundane thoughts at him. Money. Family. Career. It was an excellent camouflage for a hunter. Appear like one of the prey.
He lifted the man’s body into a nearby dumpster and threw the dagger in as well.
Damon used his sleeve to wipe as much blood off of Rebecca’s head as possible. Chris and Gracie’s house was another couple of blocks uptown and he had to carry her without attracting attention.
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