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LAUREN PARISH DID NOT intend to die today.
Death was nowhere on her to–do list, and yet here she was, crouched on the fire escape outside her bedroom window, cold wind snaking up her nightgown and her heart pounding wildly in her ears. Four stories up, with two men in black tearing through her apartment and muttering Czech words she could not identify, death didn't seem such an unlikely scenario all of a sudden.
Five minutes ago, she'd been sitting in bed flipping through research notes for a presentation due next week, when an image had flashed in her mind. She saw two men standing at her door, using some kind of tool to pick the lock. When her hearing, more acute than that of mortals, caught the slightest sound of metal against metal at her front door, she'd turned off her bedside lamp, dropped the notes, and scrambled to the window, her only escape. She was easing the window shut again when she heard the men enter the apartment.
It hadn't been the first time one of her visions had proven useful, but it had definitely been the most opportune.
She barely had enough room to keep herself out of sight of the window on the small landing, and she had to either go up or down. Her breath was coming out in quick shallow gasps, and her legs quaked beneath her. She wanted to cry, but she wouldn't. She had to summon whatever strength she possessed to stay calm, to escape.
She knew without thinking twice who the men were, and she knew their intent without a doubt was to kill her, or take her to be interrogated and then kill her.
Neither choice was remotely appealing.
So this is what it felt like to stare death in the face. It was afear she hadn't been struck by since childhood, a fear her ancestors had held close and nurtured, a fear she'd foolishly let slip away in her comfortable life—in her disdain for what had always seemed to her generation as the elders' cowardice.
The men only had to feel the still–warm bed where she'd been sitting to know that she'd been there, that she was hiding somewhere close by. She glanced up and saw that her crazy upstairs neighbor was home, but the woman would call the police before she'd let Lauren climb in her window.
She looked down and could see no light coming from the window directly below. The apartment was occupied by a young couple who had a cat they let go in and out the window, and if she was lucky, the window would be open now.
Ever so slowly, she peered into her bedroom again and caught sight of one of the men standing beside her bed, doing exactly what she feared he'd do. Her heart flip–flopped. When he ran his hand along the sheet where she'd been sitting, she held her breath and eased herself slowly toward the ladder.
The old metal fire escape was creaky, and even a cat scaling it had a tendency to sound like a herd of buffalo. Lauren didn't have a chance. Why couldn't she have been born with some really cool power like the ability to shape–shift? Now would have been a great time to transform into a mouse.
She moved as quickly as she could, eased herself down the ladder with a minimum of noise, and stopped at the neighbor's landing. The window, as she suspected, was ajar six inches. But when she tried to push it up farther, she saw that a piece of wood had been nailed into place to prevent the window from opening any wider.
Lauren muttered a curse and glanced up. From above, she could hear her own window opening. She sucked icy air into her lungs and shivered, then pushed up hard on the window. It wouldn't budge. She noticed the wood window frame was rotting, and she had to decide whether to keep trying to get into this window or take the risk of going another floor down.
Above, if they were looking down at her now, they'd see her. She felt a burst of adrenaline, and she stood up, kicked the window frame with all the strength she could summon, and felt the satisfying give of the wood against her heel. Broken glass pierced the top of her foot, but she didn't feel pain, just the warmth of blood.
The men upstairs had to have heard. She broke away a few large shards of remaining glass and eased herself quickly through the opening, where she thankfully found an empty bedroom. She ran to the front door, flung it open, and kept running.
Downstairs, out the door, into the street, through the alley, toward the apartment three blocks over where she could only pray her best friend was home.
Her nightgown didn't protect her from the cold October air, and the cut on her foot was beginning to throb with pain, but she ran, faster than she'd ever run before, her bare feet slapping cold pavement–across streets and around cars and past buildings and up stairs until she was pounding on Macy's door.
When the door opened a moment later, she saw her friend's worried face, and she collapsed into her, into the apartment, then she spun and slammed the door shut. Locked all the locks. Caught her breath.
No one had followed her closely enough to see where she'd gone, she was pretty sure of it. But only now did she feel the weight of guilt that she had possibly led those murderers right to Macy's door.
"Lauren! What happened? What's wrong? Are you okay?" Macy was holding her at arm's length now, taking in her half–naked appearance, her bare feet, the bloody gash.
Lauren heaved a few deep breaths, but said nothing. Macy didn't know Lauren's true identity. No mortal knew.
"Oh my God, your foot! Let me get something," Macy said, hurrying to the bathroom. "Should I call 9–1–1?" she called over her shoulder.
"No!" Lauren eased onto the floor, leaned against the door, fearful now of not being near enough to an exit should she need one.
This was not the first time Lauren had been forced to hide from assholes who had a thing against witches. Once when she was a kid visiting her extended family in Brittany on the coast of France, the house had been raided by the witch hunters, and she'd been forced to hide in the forest for days with her cousins.
She'd grown up in hiding, and she'd been lectured a thousand times about the dangers of being a witch in a world of mortals. But all things drift toward complacency, and even the gravest dangers cannot loom large in one's mind for long when at a distance. There had not been many raids in California during her lifetime—certainly not enough for her to worry about. The Parish family—they'd changed their names from Beauville to Parish when her grandparents had moved from Louisiana to the Napa Valley in the thirties—had been very good at hiding.
So what had changed? Why her? Why now? She didn't have to consider the questions for more than a second. The CNN interview had done it. It had aired for the first time early this morning. The witch hunters apparently worked fast.
Her mother had been furious, had called her on her cell phone that afternoon to tell her she was a fool and a traitor, had told her she'd put the entire family in danger for the sake of her own ego.
But Lauren hadn't believed her. She'd grown so complacent and secure, smug even. She hadn't seen any harm in doing the interview to talk about the study she'd headed up, the results of which were making news all over the world now. She'd believed the witch hunters weren't really a threat anymore, that most of the zealots among them had died out and that any remaining ones weren't really interested in a battle that was centuries old.
Lauren had been wrong. Her inconsistent and troublesome ability to foretell the future had not warned her far enough in advance. Instead, it had waited until danger was at her door.
Macy returned carrying a towel and a first aid kit. She knelt on the oak plank floor beside Lauren's foot and began tending to the wound. "Is this glass?" she said, gently picking it out as Lauren winced in pain.
"Yeah," she said, looking at her friend instead of the cut. "I had a little accident. I can't really tell you what happened, okay? Can you just trust me and promise not to say a word to anyone about this?"
Macy peered at her with concerned brown eyes. She looked so safe, so surreal here in her warm, familiar apartment, her long blond hair still wet from a shower. "You're scaring me, Lauren. What the hell's going on?"
"I have to disappear for a while, okay? And you can't tell anyone you saw me tonight. You can't act like you know anything at all."
"About what? What are you talking about? Is someone trying to hurt you?"
"I just need you to loan me some clothes, and maybe your car if you can spare it. And some money, just enough to get me away from here."
Lauren's mind raced now, forming a plan. She'd always known what she had to do if she was ever found out. But the logistics of getting to her cousin Sebastian in L.A.—how to get clothes and money when she was chased out of her apartment wearing nothing but a nightgown—were never discussed by the elders.
"God, Lauren, this is crazy. You know you can tell me anything, right? You can trust me."
Macy was wrapping her foot in a bandage now, securing it with tape.
"It's not that simple. And I swear I would tell you if I could. Just trust me on this. As soon as I can, I'll give you the whole story, and this will all make perfect sense, and you'll understand why I'm protecting you by not saying anything."
Macy regarded her seriously. "What about Griffin? Should I not tell him you've been here either?" Griffin was Macy's fiancé.
Lauren shook her head. "Don't tell anyone." "I think you need stitches in your foot. Can I at least give you a ride to the emergency room?"
She looked down at the bandage. "No. I'll have to have it looked at somewhere else, not here in the city."
Her friend sighed heavily. "Okay, I'll give you whatever you need. You can have my car. I'll just tell Griffin I had to put it in the shop for repair."
"Thank you so much, Macy. You're saving my life right now. And whatever you do, don't go to my apartment. In fact, don't even let on that you know me if anyone asks."
"This is just too weird," Macy said as Lauren followed her into the bedroom. "You're acting like a criminal or something."
It's way worse than that, Lauren wanted to say, but didn't. "Don't worry, I'm not, I swear. When I'm able to explain, you'll understand."
Macy wouldn't have believed the truth anyway. What mortal could without some kind of solid proof? They needed to see milk being curdled on the spot or corpses raised from the dead to believe a witch was in their midst. Not that real witches did any of that stuff, but stereotypes died hard.
Lauren's foot throbbed now, yet she could walk on it with little trouble. Wearing shoes might be a different story, though.
But she had to get out of San Francisco, and she had to do it fast. She wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to come back. At that thought, tears stung her eyes, and when Macy glanced back and caught the stricken look on her face, she halted in her tracks in the doorway to the bedroom.
"Lauren," she said, and took her friend into her arms.
Lauren awkwardly allowed Macy to hug her. She'd never been much for the whole cheek kissing and hugging friends thing. But slowly the gesture comforted her enough to relax into the embrace.
She wasn't the one who broke into tears about anything, ever. She was the scientist, the medical researcher who viewed everything through the cool, impartial lens of science. She was the icy intellectual, the one people relied upon for the harsh, unvarnished truth. While her gift of prescience may have been unpredictable, she'd always relied on her intelligence to solve any problem. She didn't do this.
Not cowering. Not weakness. Not falling apart. She didn't realize right away that she was crying hard, that sobs racked her chest, until she heard Macy murmuring soothing sounds.
And then Lauren stopped. She calmed down, silenced herself, pulled away, wiped her face.
Macy stared at her with concern. "Are you sure you'll be okay to drive? Do you need me to give you a ride somewhere? I'll take you wherever you need to go. I'll drive you all the way to Mexico if—"
Lauren was shaking her head before Macy even stopped speaking. "No, it's not safe for you. I have to go alone."