Gwen lost focus on the entire world, except for one man. He was a well-built man, a handsome man, with dark brown hair that was almost black, and he had strikingly blue eyes. If she had seen him inside of the bar, instead of in the alley out back, he might have caught her eye with his good looks, but that’s not why she was focused on him under the circumstances. She was focused on him because he was locked in combat with a vampire.
The creature’s back was to her, but Gwen could tell what it was. The rest of the world might be fooled by a vampire’s glamour and all the other techniques that they used in their attempts to blend in with humanity, but Gwen could always tell. That was part of her gift.
The man had a sharpened wooden stake in his right hand, and it wasn’t an improvised job. She’d seen men and women fight vampires before, and she’d seen them using any number of improvised tools ranging from a broken off broomstick to a wooden tent stake, but this man’s stake was a specific tool, crafted for for a specific job, the job that the man was attempting to carry out. This was not his first rodeo.
The vampire was wounded, but was using both hands to hold the man’s stake-hand at bay. If the vampire hadn’t already been so damaged, the man might not have had much luck struggling with it strength to strength. As it was, the vampire was slowly overpowering him anyway.
The man appeared to be wounded as well. His left arm hung limply at his side, as if broken. Gwen braced herself for the man’s death. She prepared for the pain that would come with it. It wouldn’t be anything new, but it was always bad. Then the man surprised her. He flicked his wrist, tossing the stake down into the air. His left hand glided up, effortlessly caught the stake, and drove it up under the vampire’s ribcage, piercing it’s heart.
Gwen realized that he’d been feigning his injury, letting the vampire get overconfident until it dropped its guard. He’d probably used the trick before, too. She could tell from the way he had so smoothly struck when the time was right, that he was a far more experienced hunter than she had thought. The man used his hand to wipe the stray ashes from the stake, watching them fall into the human-shaped pile that used to be the vampire.
Unfortunately, he didn't see that two more vampires had come up behind him. Within moments, the man was lying dead on the ground.
Gwen came out of the vision, returning to her own body to find herself in her kitchen, on her knees. The combat that she viewed hadn’t happened yet. It was going to take place behind a specific bar, the Stumble Inn, which was located less than two hours away. That was part of the accompanying information that usually came packaged along with this kind of vision, the knowledge somehow downloaded into her brain as she was watching. It was pretty handy; the only upside of the knee-bruising visions was that she never had to struggle for the details.
She hated the visions this strong, the ones where she lost control of her body. She was getting better at dealing with them, and better at appearing as if she was in full control of her body and mind, but lately more and more of her visions were causing her to lose almost all control as the they became her reality. Which was annoying, to say the least. Even though there was nobody around to see her, Gwen acted casual as she rose back to her feet. It never hurt to practice.
She knew that she had several hours before she needed to be there to save the blue-eyed man's life, but she liked to get an early start on these type of things. In her experience, more time by trying to convince the man that her vision was for real by just finding him. For some reason, the hardest people to convince tended to be the ones who knew that things really did go bump in the night. It never ceased to amaze her that the people who would happily hunt a vampire, were often so unhappy at the thought that psychics might be real.
Vampires were nasty creatures. The promise of the vampire was that you could be forever young, forever beautiful, but nothing ages you quite like being dead. While they did tend to blend in, it was merely glamour, a bit of illusion and a bit of mind control that allowed them to walk among the population. They could project the image of being forever young and beautiful, but they couldn’t mask their rotten smell, and once they dropped their glamour to feed, their looks matched their odor.
Gwen had never been able to see a vampire’s glamour except in recordings, but even then they possessed an inherent wrongness that seemed very obvious to her. If they were sitting perfectly still, she sometimes had trouble, but the moment they moved she always knew. Their movements were wrong, alternating between being too smooth and too jerky, as if they were some kind of weird marionette being operated by a puppeteer who hadn’t quite figured out this particular puppet’s controls.
Gwen hoped that she would be able to speak to the man in her vision and to avoid vampires altogether, but life never seemed to work out that way for her, which is why she always tried to be prepared. She habitually wore silver jewelry: a necklace, dangling earrings, and bracelets. If a vampire tried to feed off her in any of their preferred places, they would get burned. For this kind of mission, she always took bottles full of holy water, but hoped she wouldn’t be close to enough to any of the vampires to need them. In addition, she carried several chopsticks that were pointier than usual inside her jacket pocket, two knives, and a .38 Lady Smith revolver. The gun and the knives wouldn’t kill a vampire, but they did feel pain. Sometimes just a little distraction was all you needed to run away.
She left a note for her roommate, Sean, detailing what happened, where she went, and when she expected to be home. He would be pissed that she didn't wait to take him along, but that couldn't be helped. By the time he got off of work, she needed to already be on the road. If she timed this right, she would only be out after dark for about an hour. This early in the spring, there was a fair amount of daylight. There was a time when she used to prefer the winter. Now, the longer days and shorter nights of summer were her favorite season.
She kept a duffle bag with a small arsenal of weapons, a bug out bag in case she had to disappear, a first aid kit of epic proportions, and a GPS tracker. Sean insisted on knowing exactly where she was at all times. To that end, she had two phones with the GPS location available, GPS in her car, and at least two clip-on trackers that she carried in her pocket and her purse respectively. She figured if she needed to carry them, she might as well use them to find the things she constantly misplaced. She was pretty sure Sean had placed others in some of her things, but she didn't bother him about it. Before the vampires she might have called him crazy, but now, it seemed like a sensible precaution to her.
She punched in the address for the Stumble Inn and set off.
The Stumble Inn wasn't quite a dive bar. Maybe a step or two up from that, what Gwen called a townie bar. She didn’t mean this in a bad way; townie bars were usually places she liked. Everyone knew each other's name and people who weren't regulars were looked at with suspicion. It was nice to know places like that were still around. It made it more difficult for a stranger to come in and eat people without being noticed.
The lighting was dim with the exception of a few pool tables. As Gwen’s eyes adjusted, she looked at the corner booths. Men like these tended to like to sit with their backs to the wall, where they could see the entire room, and watch all entrances and exits. Gwen lived this philosophy, so she was conscious of it in others. She called the mental game Spot the Trauma Survivor.
She spotted the man she was looking for right off the bat, in the corner, nursing a beer. He probably would have been looking right at her, watching the entrance carefully, but he had apparently been distracted looking at two men near the pool table on the far side of the barroom. Their voices were raised, and it looked like things might escalate.
Gwen’s stomach let her know that her nerves were in overdrive. Left to her own devices, Gwen wasn't someone who would walk up to a complete stranger and start a conversation. She wondered when this part of things would get easier.
She took a deep breath, steadied herself, then walked right up to the man while he was distracted. She sat down across the table from him. The man tensed, but merely raised his eyebrows instead of saying anything. It was as if having noticed her, he had instantly decided that she wasn’t a threat. He acknowledged her, but left the ball in her court.
Jesus, she thought, are they all stoics?
“Hi, my name is Jane,” she stuck out her hand and smiled. He returned the smile, but didn't move his hand out from under the table to shake hers. She wondered if he had a gun pointed at her.
“Sorry, Jane, I don't shake hands. Why don't you tell me what you want?”
This was the part she hated the most, but at least she didn't have to sit there making small talk for ten minutes.
“Two hours ago I had a vision of you in the alley behind this bar attacking a vampire. You were winning, but then two more vampires showed up. You looked pretty surprised, then you were dead.”
The man started laughing and said, “Oh, so you’re the Harbinger. I was wondering if I'd ever meet you.”
“The what now? Harbinger?” she said, incredulous. “Boy, for a bunch of manly men you hunter types sure are melodramatic.”
“You show up and tell people that if they don’t do what you say, they’ll die. Not all of them have listened to you, but they aren’t around anymore are they? Since you are a harbinger of their doom, that is what some of the other bounty hunters have started calling you. Personally, I think of you as Chicken Little,” he said, his voice just short of a drawl. His blue eyes were lit with a wicked humor that immediately appealed to her.
Gwen laughed. Part of it was nerves, but the main thing that struck her funny was just how weird her life had become. Visions, vampires, and now people were calling her “the Harbinger,” or “Chicken Little”, which she liked a bit better, although she thought her track record was more accurate.
“Fair enough. So, don't go into the alley expecting one vamp when there are three. On that note, I am going to take my Chicken Little ass home before things get too dark,” she said, simultaneously grabbing her purse and moving out of the booth. Before she could stand up, his hand grabbed hers.
“Not just yet. I've actually been looking forward to meeting you. Why don't I buy you a drink?”
He had a charming smile and his tone of voice was friendly enough, but the viselike grip on her hand belied this easy charm. His charm must be getting to her because instead of making a scene, she set her purse back down and got comfortable in her side of the booth. He motioned the waitress over, then ordered himself another a beer. She ordered a water with a slice of lemon. It irritated her that now he wanted to engage in niceties.
“Why don't you tell me what you want,” she said. She could feel the impatient scowl on her face as she spoke. She tried to cover up her irritation, but she knew that her emotions were generally an open book to anybody who wanted to read them.
He smiled, “How about your real name?”
“We must be related. I'm John Smith,” he said. She had to admit that his smile and charm worked on her, at least partially. This was the reason Sean didn't like her doing this on her own. She tended to like people, especially if they had a sense of humor.
“Well, Jane, you’ve made a name for yourself in the bounty hunter community. There's a lot of curiosity surrounding you, and not all of it is good. You warned me about the ambush, so I’ll warn you in return. Some of the bounty hunters are starting to think that you’re just a different kind of monster. Mainly, just people you haven't warned, or healed, but they’re getting pretty loud. You might want to rethink showing up in person next time,” he said.
She nodded. She wished, not for the first time, that the visions came with cell phone numbers instead of locations. When she didn't warn people, she not only had a migraine for three days, but she got a second vision of the person's death, complete with exactly how that death felt. Apparently, she was going to have to come up with a different way to warn these dicks. The trouble was you couldn't just call a bar and ask for the blue eyed guy who hunted vampires.
“Look, next time you see someone in danger, give me a call. I know a lot of the other hunters. I may be able to get you a cell phone number, or just warn them on your behalf,” he said. He handed her a card with a phone number on it. There was no name, no business, no pictures or icons--just a phone number on an otherwise white card.
She took the card, but didn't know if she would use it. It wasn't a bad option, really, and it would be great to not have to make these nerve-wracking trips anymore.
“Thanks. I appreciate the heads-up, but I really do need to be going,” she said.
“Let's wait until the waitress returns with our drinks. If you leave now, people will notice and remark on it and I think it best you fly under the radar. Ten more minutes isn't going to kill you,” he said.
She glanced around the bar and noticed that there were more people there than when she arrived. A lot of them were giving her curious glances. Gotta love a townie bar, she thought.
“I guess people here know you?”
“They do. I'm not an everyday regular, but I come in often enough that they know me by name. I tip well enough that they’re generally happy to see me,” he said.
The waitress returned with their drinks. Judging by the smile on her face when she left, he wasn't lying about the tip. Gwen drank her water, and they chatted about innocuous things for a bit. The forced casualness of the conversation annoyed her, but judging by the twinkle in his blue eyes, the man seemed perfectly at ease with it. He managed to look relaxed, but he watched the barroom carefully.
“What’s it like being a psychic?” He asked after a moment.
Gwen never knew how to answer that. It was just like being normal, except you were psychic. The visions were fine, but the pain that came with them wasn’t. There was too much to it all, some of it indescribable, and most of it stuff that Gwen didn’t feel like discussing with a stranger.
“Predictable,” she said.
A short laugh burst out of him, turning into a smile.
“What’s it like being a hunter?” Gwen asked.
“Better than being prey,” the man answered.
Gwen had to agree with that logic, but she realized that at this rate, the conversation wasn’t going to get anywhere. They were each too guarded to give out any more information about themselves or their occupations than they had to, especially to a stranger.
“Alright,” Gwen said after another moment of silence. “Have you read any good books lately?”
He considered the question for a moment, as if trying to decide if answering it would give away any important information. “I just finished reading Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story.”
“You’re a Christopher Moore fan?” She couldn’t believe it. “I just finished rereading The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove!’”
The man laughed again. He had a pleasing, natural laugh that put Gwen at ease, which then put her on her guard. Nothing is more dangerous than being at ease.
“Not really,” he said. “I just read a lot, and I like to pick up random vampire fiction. They’re good for a laugh, mostly. Sometimes they’re good for ideas. Fiction writers love to come up with innovative ways to kill.”
That made more sense to her. “Like bronzing a vampire?”
“Exactly!” He said. “Since real vamps can’t turn to mist, that one has me really curious. Might want to try it out someday.”
“What about silver nitrate, like in Barbara Hambly’s books?” Gwen was getting excited now. She was always looking for new tools to use against vampires, but she didn’t have the field opportunities to test them out.
“I haven’t read her yet. Sounds intriguing.” He pulled out his phone, and started tapping buttons “Let me jot that down. How do you spell her name?”
After that, talking got easier, more relaxed. They both liked books, and they both hated vampires. While they each didn’t like to give out much in the way of information, neither of them seemed to have a problem giving out new ideas on how to fight vampires. That was the sort of information, Gwen figured, that everybody should have.
After fifteen minutes of conversation, he stood up and motioned for her to walk in front of him.
“It's ok. I can walk to my car on my own,” she said.
“No. I’ll walk with you. I need to get a look around outside before dark, anyway,” he said.
The bright sunshine was a stark contrast to the dim bar, but Gwen was happy for it. Sunshine meant safety, for the most part, and she felt herself relax a little. She didn't really want him walking her to her car. Her car was purposefully nondescript, but she had a feeling he would notice much more about her car – like her license plate number – than she wanted him to. Sean was going to kill her. He was incredibly touchy about their privacy and felt that even having a bumper sticker on the car made it stick out too much.
She unlocked the doors using the remote on her keychain, then glanced in her backseat to make sure that it was empty. As she opened the door, she turned to thank the hunter for walking her to the car.
“Well, it's been interesting. Thank you,” she said.
“Drive safely. And seriously, next time you get a vision, call me,” he said.
She nodded and left. As she drove off, she kept one eye on the rear-view mirror, watching the man watch her drive away.
Sean was indeed pissed. Her drive home had been much faster than her trip to the Stumble Inn, but even so it was still twenty minutes after dark when she finally pulled into the well lit garage, shutting the garage door behind her. Sean was already standing in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest. He knew just how to use his height and overall size to be the most intimidating. No doubt he had tracked her GPS location all the way home.
“Goddammit, Gwen,” he said, and followed this up with a stinging diatribe of profanity. He never yelled at her, but he could be quietly frightening in his anger. She learned a long time ago that he reacted to fear with fury, so these outbursts never scared her, but they weren't particularly fun, either. As she came inside, she listened to his fury. She admired his ability to make entire sentences out of a few choice words.
“I'm sorry and you're right. Really. I thought that if I left early I would be home before dark, but things didn't go exactly as planned. Also, it gets worse,” she said, walking into the kitchen. Grabbing two bottles out of the cabinet, she poured a Jameson's on the rocks for him and made herself a gin and juice, heavy on the gin.
She gave him his glass and sat down at the kitchen table. He sat down across from her and listened as she told him about her encounter with the bounty hunter. Sean liked details, so she tried to describe as much about “John Smith” as she could remember. Since moving in with Sean, her memory had improved remarkably. He once told her that death was in the details and if you knew where death was, you could be somewhere else.
She pulled the card with the cellphone number out of her purse and put it in Sean's outstretched hand.
“I’ll see what I can find on the number, but I’m betting it’s to a burner,” Sean said. He had been a police officer for their town for a long time now.
“Do I call him next time I get a vision?”
“It might be worth the risk. I know for sure that you can't go warn these douchebags on your own anymore,” he said. She nodded in agreement. “You willing to risk a three day migraine and nightmare fest to find out?”
The thought of it made her feel sick, but if she could just call someone else to deal with warning people it would be like a miracle.
“Not really, but I think it would be really great, at some point, if we could trust someone other than each other again...don't you?”
Sean smiled, but it was a sad smile. “Yeah, that would be nice, but don't get your hopes up.”
For the rest of the week, Gwen enjoyed her normal routine, relishing the sense of stability and control that came with simple daily pleasures and pains, which had nothing to do with psychic visions, or the undead. Every morning, she headed to the gym. Working out helped her deal with stress, and it was her only real social outlet since she worked from home. Gym friendships were satisfying and fun, but rarely headed into serious territory. She spent an hour or two in the morning chatting and lifting weights, or going to a yoga class, or a Crossfit class. She was easily bored with exercise, so changing it up day to day helped keep her interested.
Her routine changed subtly during the year, as sunrise came at different hours. She liked to get things done early in the day, so heading out at dawn to work out, and run whatever errands she left the rest of the day for work. On his days off, Sean joined her.
The following week was likewise routine, but everything felt a little bit off. Sometimes she had the sensation that she was forgetting something, and other times she felt anxious and jumpy. After a few days, she finally pinpointed the exact sensation – she felt like she was being watched. Gwen and Sean lived in a rural area and their isolated house sat on 60 acres, half of which was woods. Feeling watched while in town wasn't pleasant, but reasonable given the number of people around. Feeling watched at home was a something entirely different.
Five years ago, before finding out about the things that go bump in the night, she would have laughed off the sensation as paranoia or anxiety. It isn't paranoia when people are out to get you, she thought. Acting like she was just going for a walk in the woods, she did a thorough search of the area around her home, looking for evidence that someone might be staking out her house for some reason, but found nothing. They kept the house locked all of the time out of habit, but when she came in from her walk, she double checked all of the locks just in case. Frustrated, she went to her office to work.
She texted Sean, Feel like I am being watched. Not sure if paranoia or premonition. Did a sweep outside, found nothing. He could take another look around when he got home.
The rest of the day she spent alternating between work and reading. She had been working for a psychic hotline for over ten years now. Half of the job was listening to people and letting them know someone cared and understood. The other half, the psychic half, was easily accomplished with tarot cards and common sense. She hated most mainstream jobs, and only lasted about a year when she had to work with other people. Setting her own hours, working from home was perfect for her temperament, which was something she reminded herself when her clients frustrated her. People spent a lot of money to hear her advice, but most of the time they didn't follow it.
Human nature could be so irritating.
Between her clients and the book the day passed quickly. Sean came in about an hour late as he had scouted around the property, but didn't find anything, either.
“Maybe I am just being paranoid,” she said.
“Maybe, but it is better safe than sorry. Besides, it's been a while since I took a walk around the property. I should do it more often. You know, I think our lone hawk found himself a mate,” Sean said.
She and Sean swapped stories about the wildlife they had seen during their respective walks, while Gwen signed out of work and headed to the kitchen. She made dinner while they talked. They had been friends since their freshmen year of college, but they never seemed to run out of conversation. Most of the time, they talked about books, movies, or television shows, but they also shared a love of music and the outdoors. It made for companionable dinner conversation.
Their newest obsession was a show called The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt. She wondered how they ever watched television prior to Netflix streaming.
Allison from the gym refused to believe that they were just friends.
“He's hot. You are both single and you live together. There is no way you are 'just friends' with each other,” she said.
“I don't know what to tell you. I think of him more like a brother,” Gwen said. She wanted to say that surviving a vampire attack when your loved ones didn't, tended to be a psychotically bonding experience, but she just let it go. Even before the vampire attack, people believed the When Harry Met Sally theory that men and women couldn't be friends. Arguing about it just made folks more convinced that something was going on, so she didn’t bother.
The next few days she stayed home instead of going to the gym. If she was being watched, changing up her routine was a good idea. Besides, Sean had enough weights and other gear that she could get a decent workout at home. Thinking about Allison's continued disbelief that she and Sean could live together without having sex, made missing out on the social interaction much easier.
The feeling of being watched didn't go away until Sunday, when she had another vision. She usually took Sundays off, and was curled up on the couch in her bedroom with her two cats: Jeeves, a very dignified tuxedo cat; and Wooster, a silly but sweet orange tabby. This vision didn't involve vampires, which was a relief, until she thought about how many other creatures there were to worry about.
An attractive blond woman was fighting with a revenant. She was winning the fight, had the revenant pinned on the ground – no easy trick. The blond wielded a machete and Gwen noticed that the revenant had no arms or legs. The blond woman was covered in gore and in the process of putting salt in its mouth, when a man came up from behind and shot her.
The man was almost laughably evil looking. He was wearing all black, including a black hat and eye patch, even though he had two fully functional eyes. The eye patch and his goatee were attempts to look older as he was in his early twenties. This was the first revenant that he had raised. Necromancers tended to go power-mad, but it usually took more than one revenant, and a mere smattering of years doing more than just dabbling in dark magic. Judging by the showy pageantry, this guy must have started off crazy.
What kind of person wants to be evil? For that matter, what kind of person wants to raise and control the dead? As far as Gwen was concerned, that was a smelly, and gross hobby to dabble in. He couldn't take up knitting? Or cross-stitch?
Gwen waited until the last of the vision faded, as there were always wisps of information that filtered through to her as she came back to herself. Sean traced the bounty hunter's number, but as he suspected it was to a burner phone. She hated the thought of having nightmares about a revenant and its goth fanboy controller, so she swallowed her pride and called the number.
The phone rang through to voicemail.
“This is Jack Bailey. I’m out killing monsters. Please leave a message.”
In spite of herself, she laughed. She spent so much time trying to fly under the radar that she admired the brazenness of the message. She also liked the name Jack Bailey more than John Smith – he must have only told her that was his name to make fun of her for using Jane Smith.
“Jack, this is Chicken Little. Looks like the sky is falling for a blond woman hunting a revenant near Salt Lake City. I have more details if you want to call me back,” she said.
She hung up the phone and instantly regretted the message. Calling herself Chicken Little seemed too light-hearted with respect to the blond woman dying in her vision. She wondered, not for the first time, how other people managed to go through life without second guessing every single interaction they had with other people.
She sent Sean a text letting him know about the vision – he worked weekends – and that she might have the bounty hunter's name. He would want to look into the name and see what came up. She hit send on the text just as her phone started ringing.
“Hey, there, Chicken Little, what've you got?”
She was so relieved that he called back that she spent the next several minutes babbling about what she saw.
“Is that enough detail for you to find the person and warn them?” she asked.
“There is only one blond woman with the muscle to chop off revenant limbs with a machete; at least, that I can think of...and she lives relatively close to Salt Lake, so yeah, that is plenty of information. You didn't happen to get any names attached to this necromancer, did you?” he asked.
“I wish it worked that way, but no. I know that this is going to happen about 12 hours from now in Valhalla Cemetery,” she said.
“That's good. Any other details you can think of? Anything you might have left out?”
“No, I included everything I saw. Will it be enough information to stop her from being shot?” she asked.
“More than enough. Lucy, the blonde woman, has a couple of people in her area that she take with her as back-up. There are some other precautions she can take now that we know necro-boy is going to be lurking around the cemetery,” he said.
“Ok. There are some pretty intense, unpleasant repercussions for me if she isn't warned,” she said, uncomfortable with sharing that aspect of the visions with a stranger.
“Interesting. Like what?” he asked. She could hear the curiosity in his voice, but deflected.
“Is your name really Jack Bailey?” she asked.
“Yes, Gwen McAdams, my name is really Jack Bailey,” he said. She could hear his grin and had a mental picture of him sitting back in a chair with his feet propped up on a desk. She smiled.
“So, my license plate number?”
“Ok, then. Well, I better let you go so you can call Lucy and warn her,” she said.
“I'll let you know how it works out,” he said. “Thanks for calling me.”
She hung up the phone. Really, if he was as good as his word, she should be thanking him. Calling and talking to him was pleasant, and it sure beat driving all the way to Salt Lake City. She glanced at the sleeping Jeeves and Wooster next to her. She was too keyed up from the vision, and the phone call to stay curled up on the couch with cats. She decided that she might as well burn off her nervous energy by going for a walk outside.
She noticed that Sean was right, their resident hawk had a friend and hunting partner. Good for them, she thought.
She received two follow up texts from Jack. The first one let her know he had warned Lucy, and she was taking it seriously. The second one came in the early hours of dawn the next day.
Good guys lived. Bad guys died.
She wasn't even aware of how tense she had been until that text came. Gwen closed her eyes, not to sleep, but to see Lucy's face - still alive because of her warning to Jack.