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Coulda, shoulda, woulda been in Vegas.
It wasn't the first time the thought flashed through Gwen Badura's mind, but this time might have been the loudest. She sat in her tough little VW Beetle along the side of quiet old Route 66, looking west upon the dark bulk of the Sandia Mountains and knowing she'd just about reached destination on this strange walkabout.
"What do you mean, you're not coming?" Sandy's voice still rang with wounded disbelief in her mind.
No little wonder. They'd had the vacation trip planned for months. And boy, had Sandy planned. After a year of urging Gwen to lighten up and have some fun before she hit thirty, her friend had targeted Vegas for the big momentshows and casinos and plenty of role modeling. Time for Gwen to let her hair down.
It had to be said, Gwen had a lot of hair to let down. Unruly, tangled curls that passed as brunette as long as she didn't take her head out into the direct sun or expose the coppery cast of the freckles on her arms. Stealth redhead, that's what she was.
Stealth redhead with an attitude.
Stealth redhead looking at the Sandia Mountains and its windward foothills spread out before her, imagining Albuquerque beyond.
"I can't," she'd said to Sandy. "I have to do this thing "
Right. Because there was no real explanation, was there? I have to follow this sudden salmon-swimming-upstream urge to head somewhere else.
She hadn't even known where. Not until this evening.
Not until she'd pulled over to the side of the road, looked out over the mountains, and suddenly known this was where she'd been heading. Following the inner voice that had been her companion since the night her father had diedwarning her, chivvying her, getting her in trouble.
But never like this, driving her right out of her home and onto the road and hereto the city beyond the mountains. But she'd listened anyway. So yeah, she was here.
She just didn't know why.
Michael MacKenzie sat on the hood of his Jeep Wrangler and contemplated the Albuquerque city lights, wondering what the hell he was doing here in the first place.
Restless feet, he was used to. Driven feet? Not so much.
Herded. But by who?
More likely, by what.
Even the demon blade couldn't explain italthough the damned thing usually did leave him with more questions than answers. Left him wary, too. Of himself of others. Of the moment-to-moment byplay with the world outside of himself that most people took for granted.
He hadn't been most people for a while now.
Well, he was here; he'd get the lay of the land before he settled in. That meant driving the informal circuit around the city, from the highway to the big north loop around the reservation end of the city and feeder streets back south again. Not many people on the roads, easing toward midnightnow was the time to do it.
Mac tossed his map in through the open passenger windowunder this moon, his blade-given vision had no trouble following its detailed streetsand pushed off the hood. The sooner he did the circuit, the sooner he could crash at the little hotel just off the airport cluster.
The sooner he could figure out what had brought him here and how hard it might try to kill him.
He stretched, rotating his shoulders breathing deeply before he slipped in behind the wheel. Quiet, hearing his own breathing in the darkness, perched on the south-side berm with his nose full of sharp, dry dust and the fading scent of sun-warmed cactus.
The slam of the Jeep door rang loud in the night; the engine was only a secondary insult. He rocked the gear stick into place, nursed the clutch past its chronic initial sticking point and headed out to drive the city.
The blade sat quiescent on the passenger seat, half-covered by the map and an empty pretzel bag. The passenger foot well was crammed with his smaller duffel and netbook case and a jacket stuffed beside a carelessly jammed shave kit. The cargo area had been done on auto-packthe sleeping bag, the air pad, the big duffel, a gallon of water, the cooler all of it and more, everything in its place. Everything always ready to go.
He drove into and around the city. At first, he felt little of it through the bladejust a smothering kind of darkness, trickling in only because the knife was thirsty enough to bother. Going past the hospital, that was a biggie. And therea hotel, close to the highway and hosting some sort of convention.
Nothing worth lingering over. The knifean inexplicable impossibility of living metal and unrelenting demand, literally thrust upon him in the darkhad its standards.
It wanted the good stuff. The intensities of grief and fury and fear and love. It found the violence of the night and drove him therewhere he'd end up in the middle of it, battered by echoes of outside feelings and usually battered by fists and pipes and the occasional bullet.
A few years ago, before he'd seen how miraculously the blade could heal him, he would have worried more about those dangers. Now, at thirty-six, he knew more about pain and miracles than he'd ever thought possible.
Now, he just worried about his sanity.
He drove the vast curve north of the city, past the gas station beyond the overpass. It was the only visible building in this unsettled area, just outside the San-dia Pueblo reservation bordering the north side of the city and past the dark lumps of somnolence that, after a double take, he identified as bison.
He might have hesitated there, slowing to enjoy the grin of itbut the knife
It spiked into action, flinging out alert-beware-fear.
Fear, racing along his spine and the back of his legs; fear, sending his pulse into overdrive.
Grim experience kept his foot from punching the accelerator in reflexive flight; it allowed him to push away everything but the merest thread of feelingnot mineto pretend he didn't feel it at all, even as he heard the rasp of his own sudden breath.
Instead of giving in to it, he followed it.
And then he saw themalso dark lumps at the side of the road. One stopped compact pickup truck, three figures, strugglingno. One figure struggling and two attacking.
He skidded the Jeep right to the edge of the shoulder, close enough to sling gravel on the grappling figures, and reached for the blade without lookingknowing it would find his hand just as much as he found his grip on it.
Whatever form it chose.
It had favorites; it had surprises. Tonight, a familiar feelsquare handle of cool woodand he knew the rest of it without even looking. Dark maple, brass pins, a five-inch blade of moderate width with a wicked clip point, polished metal showing a residual scale that wasn't Damascus but looked it.
The Colonial expedition trade knife. The one that meant no bluster, no nonsense all confidence. Deal with the situation.
Two men standing, one on the ground. Mac got a glimpse of bloodied face and desperation, broad features and a strong nose. A man weathered and worn and, from the surge of new fear coming in through the blade, figuring the odds just got worse.
Of the two men standing, one held a wallet; the other held a worn satchel.
Oh, the blade wanted to scare them, too.
Mac stuffed the feeling deep. That's not what he was about. It wouldn't ever be what he was about.
yes yes yes
"Find your own," one of the men said, yanking money from the wallet and tossing the worn leather at his victim. "We're not done here."
"Yeah, you are," Mac said. "Once you put that money back. And add what's in your pockets while you're at it."
The blade gave him their every intimate flicker of reaction. Their annoyanceand then, with their exchanged glance, the cruel glee of two bullies with a new victim.
They're not my feelings. Not who I am.
Those first days after the blade had attached itself to him, he'd almost lost himself in the flood of invading sensationand woe to the man he'd been, trying to calm a bar fight that had spilled out into the night. But once he'd realized the impossible connection to the blade, the truth of it.
Not my feelings.
All the same, the flickers gave him warningtelling him that this wasn't about the money. Their facesand their body languagegave him warning, too. Young, buff, tightly shorn, they had amateur tattoos and a certain fervent glint of expression. One white, one Latinobut their features didn't really matter. Their faces were filled with hate.
"Gotta knife, boys," he said, in case they hadn't noticed. He couldn't remember, sometimes, how much he'd been able to see in the darkness before the blade had found him. "Gotta helluva left hook. And you need to return this gentleman's money."
The older man looked up from the ground in disbeliefthe blade sucked that up, tooand moved away by inches as he groped for the emptied wallet.
"And his gear," Mac added, nodding at the ragged satchel.
The young man holding the satchel threw it at his victim without looking. "This," he said, grinning at Mac, "is more like it."
He'd been bored, beating on the Pueblo man. Now he saw opportunity for more savage satisfaction.
The blade told Mac as much.
But Mac needed no warning. Not after so many confrontations like this one. The young men gave themselves away with a glance, a shift of weight, a sneer of lip. They rushed him without finesse, without training or style.
Bullies too used to their own strength and so highly aware of their own balls.
hurt them scare them do it do it
"I don't think so," Mac mutteredbut he stayed quick with the blade, ducking, whirling, slashing lightly down an arm, jabbing sharp and fast into the back of the hand that snagged him on the other side. It was only a warning: This is what I can do.
Faster than anyone ought to be, the blade sharper, the moves more precise.
This is what I will do.
They cried out almost as one; they turned in fury. They had nothing but fists and boots, weapons for use on the weak.
fear fear leap of hope ESCAPE!
The older man ran for ithis satchel snagged, his empty wallet in his hand. Lurching in the darkness, hurting and bruised but safe.
And that, after all, had been the point.
"Hey," Mac said, stepping back and opening his arms, a peacemaking gesture even with the blade in one hand. "We can rethink this."
fury humiliation pain mine mine mine Mac winced at the onslaught from the blade. Pushed it away. But it left him ready for their two-pronged attacka combined rush of brute force, this time wary of the blade. A duck, a feint, another slashthe thin blade so preternaturally sharp. Deeper this time.
"Seriously," Mac said, his body balanced and ready, his breathing still light and his voice casual. "I've got what I want. And your fun is way over"
Until the blade spasmed, heat in his hand; a sudden glare in the night, hot metal invading his mind.
Inexplicable emotion surged up through the metal to reach Mac, an incomprehensible swamp of pure black tarry hatred slamming into him with vengeance. He grunted; he staggered back.
The men struck.
First with fists and then after he went downstaggered not by their blows but by a retching malaisethey added booted feet. He took the hits, rolling with the impactover dusty desert ground, over the flat pad of a young prickly pear.
The young men who'd seen and wanted the blade now scrambled for it. Mac had just enough presence of mind to palm the thingan old Barlow pocket knife now, changed in a swift retreat and with only the briefest strobe of light.
In the end, the change saved him. They thought him downthey looked for the trade knife they expected to find.
They forgot to look for him.
Mac knew better than to stay down. Even striking blindly, even staggering from the assault on his body and soulhell, yes, he knew better. He came up swinging. No finesse, no holds barredthe blade flaring to life with its own sparking fury.
Steel and leather, fighting backa wash of flickering energy and light and suddenly an old cavalry saber filled the sweep of Mac's movement. For the moment, making a team of them.
Metal, tasting flesh. That sharp blade barely hesitated in its arcbut it left a scream in its wake.
"Son of a motherfu" The voice grew muffled, the two men grappling as one tried to support the other. "bitch!"
"Seriously," Mac saidback on his feet now, wavering in a wide stance but still full of snarl. "How about you just call the night over?"
They staggered away, one supporting the otherclumsy enough to ram right into the side of the truck and slide along until they reached the passenger door. The white guy stuffed the Latino inside and threw himself into the driver's side, spinning dirt and gravel until the tires grabbed pavement and squealed around in a tight U-turn back toward the interstate.
Mac thumped down to his knees in the darkness, letting the blade rest against dirt. The surging hate had faded, lapping around them in sticky waves of harsh pain. Fading hate that had fueled the initial assault; fading hate that had then driven it far past first blood. "What," he asked bluntly, "the fuck was that?" But the blade was silent.