"You're certain you saw the Child here?"
Mike Rivers scowled, staring straight ahead as he spoke, his footfalls scrunching in the sand and gravel of the hillside.
"I told you. I didn't see it. It was gone by the time I could get a scope on the place."
"So you're going on hearsay."
Kerri Elias didn't respond, simply kept following Rivers up the path. The inferno of a southern New Mexico July afternoon was easing as the sun angled down toward the horizon, but even so, Kerri had a glare headache and a massive case of piss-off at her partner's assumption that she didn't know what she was doing. A skeletal branch of sagebrush snagged the leg of her shorts and then popped free. She gave an angry swipe at it anyhow.
"Like I told you. Salerno and I were doing surveillance while heading north on Route 180, maybe an hour ago. He saw what he thought was a Child up on top of this hill. I wasn't standing next to him. He called out, and I came up and looked through his scope. By that time, it was gone."
"So it could have just been some kid."
"Out here in the desert at midday?" The scorn was clear in her voice, however she tried to keep her irritation from showing.
"Salerno didn't see the eyes."
"Not at that distance." Which you know perfectly well, and wouldn't have to ask if you weren't so determined to show me you're in charge. But I'll be damned if I'll back off either. "It was acting weird. He said it looked like it was digging around. There was something about the way it was moving. Jerky. Nervous."
"So some kid up from Deming hiding a drug stash."
"You know as well as I do that we have to check it out. That's why we called it in. Why are you making this into a pissing match?"
Rivers turned around, his cold gray eyes locking on to hers. One grizzled eyebrow rose a little. "Trying to clarify what you and Salerno saw is not making this into a pissing match."
Kerri's jaw clenched. If I can't get the Guards to assign me to someone else, I'm gonna wear my teeth down to nubs. Rivers had won, as usual. Every day she made a pledge to herself not to rise to his bait, and every day her temper got the better of her.
At least this time she didn't make it worse by arguing. You couldn't win an argument with Rivers, not that she hadn't tried. He took her words, twisted them, turned them into skewers. No matter what, I come off as the pissy adolescent girl, and he is the good soldier who is just trying to do his job. Despite incompetent colleagues whose fears create nonexistent bad guys.
Well, screw that. She'd prove it to him. Even if it wasn't her fight, even though Salerno was the one who made the report, and by rights he should be the one trudging up this hillside in the blast-furnace wind. Rivers had told Salerno to come in and write it up, and asked for her to accompany him on the hike. She couldn't very well say no.
Probably would rather pull his rank on me than on another male. Nothing bothered Salerno, so he was no fun to goad. She satisfied Rivers's bull dominating the herd instinct better than making snarky comments to someone who would shrug it off, laugh, probably invite him to go to the pub for a beer when they got back to town.
She frowned. Dammit. I've already decided there won't be anything up there. Once, just once, I'd like to be proved right, hold something up in Rivers's face and say, "Okay, what now, big man?"
She took a gulp of lukewarm water from her canteen, then slipped it back into the sleeve hanging from her belt. Only a few more yards. One more steep climb, around that rock outcropping. She was gratified to see that Rivers had drawn his pistol. At least he took her that seriously.
He came to a stop next to the jagged edge of the block of pink limestone that crowned the hilltop, his expression deadpan, gaze sweeping the area.
There was no one there.
"Shit," Kerri said under her breath.
Rivers turned to her with the faintest of smirks playing about his lips.
"I told you, the Child was already gone by the time I got the scope," she said. "There's no reason it would be back here now. They never hang around in one place long."
She pushed her way past him, stepped out onto the wind-scoured hilltop. "Maybe it left some kind of trace."
"That wouldn't be typical."
"Digging a hole in broad daylight near a highway isn't typical." Her voice came out in a growl. She unshouldered her pack, unbuckled the flap, and pulled out a small collapsible shovel, usually used for sanitary purposes on long hikes. She slid apart the telescoping handle, twisted the lock rings to secure it, and walked forward, poking the blade into the pockets of sand that lay in cracks and depressions in the rock.
"What are you looking for?"
"Salerno saw it digging a hole. I want to know why."
"Maybe it needed to take a shit." Broad sarcasm was as close as he ever got to humor.
"I don't think they do that."
For a time there was only the hiss of the wind, the grating of the metal shovel blade against rocks and sand, and an occasional harsh sigh from Rivers. Only a matter of time before he told her to give up. How many more sighs would it take? Three, she guessed, before he'd say something like, "We've wasted enough time on this," they'd have to hike back, and she'd have to endure the forty-five minute drive back into Deming, followed by another hour to get back to headquarters in Las Cruces, without allowing herself to say something that ended, "... and the horse you rode in on."
Another sigh, this one close to a snort of exasperation. "Elias, don't you think we've..." Rivers began, but stopped when her shovel hit something that made a hollow clunk.
Ignoring her superior, she knelt down by a deep fissure in the stone of the hilltop that had filled with compacted sand and dust, enough for a few sorry looking clumps of grass to hold on for grim death. But where she was, the gritty soil had been disturbed, and her fingertips sunk in deeply.
Only about six inches deep her hands contacted a smooth surface, and she scooped away the sand that covered it. After a few minutes of digging, she could see the top of what looked like a metal box.
"I knew it," she said under her breath.
Even Rivers came forward, betraying no emotion in his expression, but giving away his curiosity by leaning over and peering past her shoulder.
She took Neoprene gloves out of a ziplock bag in her pack, pulled them on, and reached into the hole. With a raw scraping noise, she pulled the box up out of its shallow grave. It was a dull gunmetal gray, square, about thirty centimeters on a side and half that in height, with a simple hasp to hold it closed.
She opened the top, shielding its contents from the wind with her body.
Inside were two objects. One was a completely ordinary brass key, the kind that can be purchased at any hardware store in the United States. The other was a folded piece of paper.
She opened it. A short handwritten note, in a hurried but completely familiar script, said:
The map is inside a book in my house. I put it inside an old copy of David Copperfield on the top shelf of the built-in bookcase in my living room. This key is to the front door. Retrieve the map and you'll know where to go. They're right behind me, so I don't have much more time to explain. I'll get in touch if I can.
Kerri gaped at the note in silence for nearly a minute.
She was brought out of her reverie by Rivers's voice, hard and cold, right behind her.
"If this is your idea of some kind of practical joke, you and Salerno, I..."
"It's no joke." Her voice sounded thin in her own ears. She stood up, wishing she had a few more inches of height as she glared straight into his eyes. "Why in the hell would I do that?" She thought of adding, "Especially since it means having to spend more time with you," and stopped herself at the last moment.
"Is that your handwriting?"
"Yes. Close enough. But I didn't write this note. And not only that, this is not my key." She pulled a key ring out of her shorts pocket and held it, jingling, in front of his face. "Also, I don't live in a house, I live in an apartment. I don't have built-in bookshelves. I don't own a copy of David Copperfield. And I don't know anything about a map." She looked back down at the scrap of paper, and a shudder twanged its way up her backbone. "I don't have any more idea what this is about than you do. But if the Black-eyed Children are involved, I suggest we discuss this later, and get our asses out of here so we can make it back to the car before the sun sets."
Even Rivers couldn't come up with some dismissive response to that. She put the note and the key back into the box, collapsed the shovel, stowed both in her pack, then hefted it back onto her shoulders with a grunt. Without giving her superior a second glance, she turned and started her descent.
The sun's red-gold rays stretched their shadows out ahead of them as they trudged in silence. How far in had they hiked to reach the hill? A mile and a half? Two miles? At the time she'd paid more attention to her irritation with Rivers than she had anything else. Since joining the Boundary Guards three years ago, she'd put more miles on her boots than she could come close to estimating. By this point, every day had become just one more hike, one more footstep in front of the other, all of them one step behind the Black-eyed Children that the Guards had been founded to fight. In all that time she had only once seen a Child, and that from a distance.
Even Salerno, for all of his easygoing jocularity, had a half-dozen sightings and an actual kill to his credit.
No wonder Rivers doesn't take me seriously. I haven't done a damn thing since I joined the Guards except walking for hundreds of miles behind someone else. Maybe he's right. Maybe I'm not cut out for this. But is it too much to ask to have an opportunity to find out?
They took a sharp turn to the right and a steep scramble downhill before the terrain flattened out, their way turning into a wandering path in the sand between thick tangles of sage, ocotillo, and creosote bush. At least the air was cooling, but the daylight was running out. If there were Children in the area, it wouldn't be a good idea to...
A shuddering rustle in a clump of sagebrush immediately ahead of them. Kerri's thoughts ceased with a gasping intake of breath. She jerked to a halt and drew her gun in a movement that was nearly reflexive. Rivers, stumping up behind her, almost collided with her.
"What?" His voice was thick with exasperation.
"I heard something." She gestured with her gun toward the source of the noise.
Do you have to be such an asshole? "If I knew what it was, I wouldn't be standing here with my gun drawn. Back me up."
He gave an irritated snort, but stepped up beside her and drew his own weapon. She edged forward cautiously, setting her feet down silently in the sand, keeping her gun trained on the bush.
And it'll turn out to be a coyote or something, and I'll look like an idiot. She reached out with her left hand, and parted the branches.
Empty of anything but shadows. She let them go, and with a dry creak, they snapped back.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned back toward her partner, ready to admit once again that what she had seen turned out to be nothing.
She never had a chance. A lithe form sprang out, seemingly materializing from the air, and struck her hard enough to knock her sprawling. Her hip struck the sharp edge of a rock, sending a searing jolt through her. She clenched her teeth against the pain and rolled over, still clutching her gun, looking for a target.
Rivers was struggling with a figure that was half his size, a lanky waif whose ragged clothing barely covered his thin torso. Despite the fact that Rivers could bench three hundred pounds, the long, narrow hands clutched around his wrists were flinging him back and forth like a rag doll. She steadied her aim, but their movement prevented a clear shot.
Suddenly, the Child gave him a fierce shove. Rivers stumbled backwards and kept his feet with an effort. It turned toward her, giving her only a momentary glimpse of dark eyes in a pale, youthful face, then gave a tremendous leap to the side and vanished into the underbrush. She heard a few light footsteps, but the Children can run almost silently, and even that noise disappeared within seconds.
Rivers winced and massaged livid bruises on his wrists, one muscle in his cheek twitching. As much evidence of being frightened by his experience as he'd ever let show.
He came over and helped her to her feet.
Somewhere near them, an unearthly keening cry spiraled upwards into the crimson-stained sky, ending on a pitch nearly above the range of human hearing.
"It's calling its friends," Rivers said. "Let's get out of here."
Not gonna argue that point.
She turned back down the path at a jog, with Rivers's heavier footsteps following.
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. How far was the goddamn car? Every rustle in the underbrush was turned in her mind into a Child, gazing at her with unblinking eyes, waiting for her to come close enough to grab.
Cresting a low rise, she saw Rivers's silver Subaru Forester a hundred yards ahead, parked on a bare patch of gravel alongside the highway. Her jog sped into a full-on sprint as the last violet rays of sunset winked out.
She reached the car, flung open the passenger side door.
A gunshot shattered the still air. Then another, and another. Kerri whirled around, her breath whistling in her throat, and gazed back down the trail.
"Rivers?" Her voice quavered on the desert breeze.
He was right behind me. I heard him. His footfalls. I know that sound, he couldn't have been more than five yards back.
"Rivers!" Her voice was stronger now, and she stepped around the front of the car, moving cautiously back toward the thickets of sagebrush, gun held in front of her.
They got him.
The thought burned through her mind like a lightning bolt.
They got him, and I'm alone.
One more call. "Rivers!" The response was nothing but the hissing sigh of the wind in the branches, brushing her face like a caress.
Movement in front of her. A pair of slender figures, clad in torn jeans and faded t-shirts, stepped out from behind the underbrush. They regarded her with a curious expression, curious and still and devoid of emotion. Even in the failing light, she could see that their eyes were a glossy, solid black. No whites, no irises, nothing but an onyx surface that wasn't in the least human.
Then the two were joined by another, and another, and another.
Kerri's nerve failed. With a cry, she leapt for the driver's side door, pulling it open and hurling her body inside. Three of the Children sprang forward toward her, but she slammed the door closed, narrowly missing the grasping fingers of the nearest. She threw herself across the front seat, pulled the passenger door shut, and in a frantic, flailing motion hit the button for the electronic locks.
Only then did she turn and look. Two Children were peering into the driver's side window. Their faces were relaxed, one with its head tilted to the side like a curious dog. Two pairs of obsidian eyes studied her with an appalling calm.
Here I sit. And Rivers has the keys.
She fought to push back the panic that rose in her chest. The evening was descending fast. There was movement in the shadows. More Children? How many more?
It was impossible to tell.
Use the radio to contact whoever is on duty. They'll send out reinforcements. They won't leave me stranded.
The way I abandoned Rivers?
She scowled. I didn't abandon him, there was nothing I could have done...
A flurry of motion outside the window. Three Children were standing in a tight triangle, heads tilted forward, communicating in the way they had even though no words were spoken. They were capable of speaking perfectly normal English—they certainly had no problem asking for help from people kind enough to stop and offer them a ride.
That much was known, even though most of the people who had heard those plaintive voices were never seen again.
One of the Children stooped, straightened, then all three turned toward the car. The Child who had bent over had a large rock in his hand.
Kerri's heart gave a stutter-step.
I'm dead. They'll find Rivers's car with a shattered window, and both of us gone. How many can I shoot before they overpower me, drag me away?
The Child with the rock lifted it, its thin arm showing no strain in lifting the heavy chunk of limestone. Kerri backed away from the window, raised an arm to shield her eyes.
But another Child put its hand on the shoulder of the one with the rock. It turned slightly, its arm aloft, still keeping its gaze locked on Kerri's. There was a frozen moment in which nothing moved.
Then with a silent, fluttery movement, all three Children vanished. After a breathless minute, Kerri leaned toward the window, finally ending with her nose pressed against the glass.
There was nothing between her and the line of sagebrush. She was alone in the New Mexico night.