“Never thought we’d ever see this place again.” Sophie Newman grinned and looked at her brother.
“Never thought I’d be so happy to see it,” Josh said. “It looks . . . I don’t know. Different.”
“It looks the same,” his twin answered. “We’re the ones who’ve changed.”
Sophie and Josh were walking down Scott Street in Pacific Heights, heading for their aunt Agnes’s house on the corner of Sacramento Street. They had last seen the house six days earlier—Thursday, May 31—when they had left for work, Sophie at the coffee shop, Josh in the bookstore. It had started as just another ordinary day, but it had turned out to be the last ordinary day they would ever experience.
That day their world had changed forever; they too had changed, both physically and mentally. “What do we tell her?” Josh asked nervously. Aunt Agnes was eighty-four, and although they called her aunt, she was not actually related to them by blood. Sophie thought she might have been their grandmother’s sister . . . or cousin, or maybe just a friend, but she had never been quite sure. Aunt Agnes was a sweet but grumpy old lady who fussed and worried if they were even five minutes late. She drove both Sophie and Josh crazy and reported back to their parents about every single thing they did.
“We keep it simple,” Sophie said. “We stick to the story we told Mom and Dad—first the bookshop closed because Perenelle wasn’t feeling well, and then the Flamels . . .”
“The Flemings,” Josh corrected her.
“The Flemings invited us to stay with them in their house in the desert.”
“And why did the bookshop close?”
Josh nodded. “Gas leak. And where’s the house in the desert?”
“OK, I got it.”
“Are you sure? You’re a terrible liar.”
Josh shrugged. “I’ll try. You know we’re going to get grilled.”
“I know. And that’s even before we have to talk to Mom and Dad.”
Josh nodded. He glanced over at Sophie. He’d been mulling something over for the past few days, and figured this would be the perfect time to bring it up. “I’ve been thinking,” he said slowly. “Maybe we should just tell them the truth.”
“The truth?” Sophie’s expression remained unchanged and the twins continued walking, crossing Jackson Street. They could see their aunt’s white wooden Victorian house three blocks away.
“What do you think?” Josh asked, when his sister said nothing more.
Finally Sophie nodded. “Sure, we could.” She brushed a few strands of blond hair out of her eyes and looked at her brother. “But just let me get this straight first. We’re going to tell Mom and Dad that their entire life’s work has been for nothing. That everything they have ever studied—history, archaeology and paleontology—is wrong.” Her eyes sparkled. “I think it’s a great idea. But I’ll let you go ahead and do it, and I’ll watch.”
Josh shrugged uncomfortably. “OK, OK, so we don’t tell them.”
“Not yet, in any case.”
“Agreed, but it’ll come out sooner or later. You know how impossible it is to keep secrets from them. They always know everything.”
“That’s because Aunt Agnes tells them,” Sophie muttered.
A sleek black stretch limousine with tinted windows drove slowly past them, the driver leaning forward, checking addresses on the tree-lined street. The car signaled and pulled in farther down the block.
Josh indicated the limo with a jerk of his chin. “That’s weird. It looks like it’s stopping outside Aunt Agnes’s.”
Sophie looked up disinterestedly. “I just wish there was someone we could talk to,” she murmured. “Someone like Gilgamesh.” Her blue eyes magnified with sudden tears. “I hope he’s OK.” The last time she had seen the immortal, he’d just been wounded by an arrow fired by the Horned God. She looked at her brother, irritated. “You’re not even listening to me.”
“That car is stopping outside Agnes’s house,” Josh said slowly. A vague warning tingled at the back of his skull. “Soph?”
“What is it?”
“When was the last time Aunt Agnes had a visitor?”
“She never has visitors.”
The twins watched a slender black-suited driver get out of the car and climb the steps, his black-gloved hand trailing lightly on the metal rail. Their Awakened hearing clearly heard the knock on the door, and unconsciously they increased their pace. They saw their aunt Agnes open the door. She was a slight, bony woman, all angles and planes, with knobby knees and swollen arthritic fingers. Josh knew that in her youth she had been considered a great beauty—but her youth had been a long time ago. She had never married, and there was a family story that the love of her life had been killed in the war. Josh wasn’t sure which one.
“Josh?” Sophie asked.
“Something’s not right,” Josh muttered. He broke into a jog; Sophie fell into step beside him, easily keeping up.
The twins saw the driver’s hand move and Aunt Agnes take something from him. She leaned forward, squinting at what looked like a photograph. But when she bent closer to get a better look, the driver immediately slipped around behind her and darted into the house.
Josh took off at a sprint. “Don’t let the car leave!” he shouted at Sophie. He raced across the street and up the steps into the house. “Hi, Aunt Agnes, we’re home,” he called as he ran past her.
The old woman turned in a complete circle, the photograph fluttering from her fingertips.
Sophie followed her brother across the street but stopped behind the car. She stooped and pressed her fingertips against the rear passenger tire. Her thumb brushed the circle on the back of her wrist and her fingers glowed white-hot. She pushed; there was the stink of burning rubber, and then, with five distinct popping sounds, the rubber tire was punctured. Air hissed out and the tire quickly settled onto its metal rim.
“Sophie!” the old woman shrieked as the girl ran up the steps and grabbed her confused aunt. “What’s going on? Where have you been? Who was that nice young man? Was that Josh I just saw?”
“Aunt Agnes, come with me.” Sophie drew her aunt away from the door, just in case Josh or the driver came rushing out and the old woman was accidentally knocked down. She knelt and picked up the picture her aunt had dropped, then helped the older woman a safe distance away from the house. Sophie looked at the photograph: it was a sepia image of a young woman dressed in what looked like a nurse’s uniform. The word Ypres and the date 1914 had been written in white ink in the bottom right-hand corner. Sophie caught her breath—there was no doubt who the person was. The woman in the photograph was Scathach.
Josh stepped into the darkened hallway and pressed flat against the wall, waiting until his eyes had adjusted to the gloom. Last week he wouldn’t have known to do that, but then, last week he wouldn’t have run into a house after an intruder. He would have done the sensible thing and dialed 911. He reached into the umbrella stand behind the door and lifted out one of his aunt’s thick walking sticks. It wasn’t Clarent, but it would have to do.
Josh remained still, head tilted to one side, listening. Where was the stranger?
There was a creak on the landing and a young-looking man in a simple black suit, white shirt and narrow black tie came hurrying down the stairs. He slowed when he spotted Josh, but didn’t stop. He smiled, yet it seemed more of a reflex than a voluntary gesture—it didn’t move past his lips. Now that the man was closer, Josh saw that he was Asian; Japanese, maybe?
Josh stepped forward, the walking stick stretched out in front of him like a sword. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Past you or through you, makes no difference to me,” the man said in English tinged with a strong Japanese accent.
“What are you doing here?” Josh demanded.
“Looking for someone,” the man answered simply.
The intruder came off the bottom step into the hall and moved to walk out the front door, but Josh barred his route with the stick. “Not so fast. You owe me an answer.”
The black-suited man grabbed the stick, yanked it from Josh’s grip and snapped it across his knee. Josh grimaced; that had to hurt. The man tossed the two pieces on the floor. “I owe you nothing, but you should be thankful that I am in a good mood today.”
There was something in the man’s voice that made Josh step back. Something cold and calculating that made him suddenly wonder if the man was entirely human. Josh stood in the doorway and watched the man move lightly down the steps. He was reaching for the car door when he spotted the back tire.
Sophie smiled and waggled her fingers at him. “Looks like you have a puncture.”
Josh hurried down the steps and joined his sister and their aunt. “Josh,” Agnes said querulously, “what is going on?” Her gray eyes were huge behind thick glasses.
The rear passenger window eased down a fraction and the Japanese man spoke urgently into it, gesturing toward the tire.
Abruptly the door opened and a young woman climbed out. She was dressed in a beautifully tailored black suit over a white silk shirt. There were black leather gloves on her hands and a pair of tiny round black sunglasses perched on her nose. But it was her spiky red hair and pale freckled skin that gave her away.
“Scathach!” both Sophie and Josh cried in delight.
The woman smiled, revealing a mouthful of vampire teeth. She pushed down the glasses to reveal brilliant green eyes. “Hardly,” she snapped. “I am Aoife of the Shadows. And I want to know what has happened to my twin sister.”
From the Hardcover edition.