All Lo Campbell wants is to be a normal teenager—to go to one high school, live in one place, and have one real friend. Instead, she travels the country with her mother, chasing the unknown, the supernatural waiting out there…
Until one day, the supernatural chases back.
Determined to rescue her mom from whatever otherworldly being took her, Lo is going to need a Tracker—and lucky for her, she finds one. Shaw is strong, good-looking, possibly available, and utterly infuriating. Sure, he may have secrets, and his help costs more than a brand-new car, but she’ll have to deal with him if she wants to find her mother—and get her home alive.
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||2 MB|
|Age Range:||12 Years|
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The Things They've Taken
By Katie McElhenney, Jenn Mishler
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Katie McElhenney
All rights reserved.
He Called Me Baby
A honky-tonk bar off the interstate wouldn't have been my first choice of locations to meet a lesser demon. But beggars can't be choosers, and there are no two ways about it, I'm here to beg.
The tires of my rusted Cadillac crunch over gravel as I swing into a parking spot near the bar's front door. Stepping out into the September morning, I catch the smells of wood and tar cooking off the building. A few trees, not fooled by the Indian summer, have already dropped their leaves. As I walk to the entrance, my feet scatter the dried brown carcasses. The skull of some large beast is mounted above the doorjamb, its horns stretching out like bony arms. I try not to see it as an ominous sign as I grip the bronzed lasso handle and pull.
The full force of an AC vent blasts me, chilling my sweat-dampened skin. A pungent mixture of greasy food and stale beer floats on the cooled air. The inside of the bar is dark even after my eyes adjust. Rustic light fixtures hanging from exposed beams give off the only illumination, the cobwebs clinging to them casting eerie shadows on the wooden walls. With my dark hair, dark eyes, and dark clothes, I might be considered an eerie shadow, too.
Even if the bar hadn't been so sparsely occupied, it wouldn't have been hard to spot the demon. He's taken his human form — a middle-aged man with lanky limbs, pale eyes, and jutting cheekbones. But despite his nondescript appearance, he is far from inconspicuous. Sitting at the first row of tables ringing the dance floor, he's garishly dressed in head-to-toe rhinestones. Everything from his comically large hat to his fake-skin boots sparkle like a constellation come to Earth — Tacky Major. It's as though he Googled "square-dancing stereotype" and combined all the images into one fashion eyesore.
I weave through the tables and join him.
"Dolores," he says, drawing out the l and the second o of my full name like he's pulling taffy. "How wonderful to see you again, darlin'."
"You can call me Lo," I remind him.
"I certainly could, Dolores." He smiles. "But I won't."
He gestures to the bottle sweating a ring of condensation on a napkin in front of him. "Can I get you a drink, sugar bee? Perhaps a beer to cool you off on this sultry day?"
"They won't serve me here."
"Why ever not?"
"I'm only seventeen."
He blinks at me uncomprehendingly.
"I'm not old enough to drink alcohol."
"Says the state of Kentucky."
"Interesting. Not old enough for booze but old enough for clandestine meetings with a tall, dark, and handsome man. On a school day, no less. I wonder what the state would have to say about that. Underage and truant. My, my, my, you are quite the rebel, young lady."
I drop into the seat opposite him. "I'm here about my mother."
Rashkur uses a nail to absently peel away at his bottle's soggy label. "A nasty business, that. Your mother earned herself a reputation for dabbling in things a bit over her head. Seems this time she got herself caught up with a greater demon, bless her heart."
"I need to find her."
"Perhaps you didn't hear me. She tangled with a greater demon. She's gone, dumplin'. Her goose is cooked. Her horse is glue. Her sweet tea has gone sour." He pats my hand. "Best you just head back home and try to move on."
I pull my hand away. "Do you know where she is?"
"I do not, and even if I did, I'm not sure I would tell you. It's dangerous."
My chin juts out. "I can take care of myself."
"I didn't mean dangerous for you, apple crisp, I meant dangerous for me."
"But you're a demon."
"A lesser demon. It is in this one and only instance that I concede to being a lesser anything." His shoulders straighten as if to prove the admission doesn't bother him. "To survive in this world, Dolores, knowing your strengths is nowhere near as important as knowing your weaknesses."
Rashkur slides his fingers down the skinny black leather of his bolo tie to his spangled bald eagle belt buckle. "Besides, I don't get caught up in the affairs of humans anymore. It always ends up messy, and I do hate a mess. Especially when I'm wearing something as fabulous as this."
"If you don't get involved with humans, what are you doing sitting in a bar trying to pass as one?" I ask through gritted teeth.
He gestures toward the stage. "Music, butter stick. It's the one thing y'all got right. I'm here for the late, great Virginia Patterson Hensley. This place has the best impersonator in the South."
"Virginia Patterson Hensley. You may know her as Patsy Cline."
He sighs. "I really do weep for the youth of this world. How do you suppose you'll ever learn about love and loss without listening to Patsy Cline?"
"I think having my mother taken by a greater demon is kind of a front-row ticket to loss."
He brushes off the comment with a wave of his hand. "The absence of one person, one time, does not true loss make."
"It does for me."
I remove a folded sheet of paper from my pocket. On it is a copy of the pentagram my mother scrawled on our living room floor two days ago. The same pentagram ringed with strange glyphs and blue fire that trapped her inside, helpless to escape as a dark portal opened under her feet.
I slide the paper across the table to him.
"I don't know what any of this means, but I need to understand." My voice is suddenly shaky. "I have to find her. Please, Rashkur. Please help me."
I look up at the ceiling as tears of anxious desperation prick at the corners of my eyes. The last forty-eight hours have left me raw and frayed. I'm unraveling. Finding my mother is the only way to sew myself back together, stitch by painful stitch.
In the silence that follows, I feel the demon's attention shift from the paper to my face and back again. I keep my gaze away from his, not trusting myself not to either burst into a full-blown fit of hysterics or break his beer bottle over his head — one would leave me wishing I were dead, the other would guarantee it.
Finally he speaks. "Despite my claim that I'm out of the human assistance business, the ways of the Southern gentleman aren't lost on me. I can't ignore a lady in distress."
My tears slowly subside; the knot in my stomach loosens slightly.
"I may know someone who can help you with this delicate matter."
I shoot forward in my seat, knocking against the table and nearly upending his beer bottle. "Tell me."
"Patience is a virtue, honeypot." Rashkur relaxes back into his chair, calmly resting one ankle on the opposite knee. "But I do admire your spunk. If you didn't insist on dressing like the ash it leaves behind, I might confuse you with a firecracker."
A group of aged men with matching ten-gallon hats and stomach paunches takes the stage. They're joined by a woman wearing a bright red dress with so much crinoline it should be considered a fire hazard. The Patsy Cline impersonator smiles into the darkness at the most thunderous applause a small crowd of day drinkers can produce. Rashkur stares at her rapturously.
"Tell me," I demand again.
The demon snorts with irritation. "I suppose if I don't you'll pester me throughout the whole set?"
I set my jaw and nod as the band tune their instruments.
The demon looks resigned. "From what I can tell, your mother has been taken by Sheyral, one of the Ancients."
"Sheyral," I repeat, the greater demon's name like gravel and steel in my mouth. "Where is he?"
"She," he corrects. "I don't know. The Ancients are very old, very powerful, and very hard to find if they don't want to be. Your best bet is to hire a tracker, a guide through the supernatural world. The best in the business lives not too far from here. If anyone can get you to Sheyral, it's him."
Rashkur reaches into his pocket and takes out a blank card. As he runs his hand over it, words appear in glowing letters. They burn into the paper, sending up small wisps of smoke before turning black.
I reach for the card, but it he pulls it back. His smile curves with curiosity.
"I must say, for someone who made a point of staying away from the preternatural, you seem to be just fine diving into all this pretty little head first."
I shrug. My whole life I'd joined my mother on her quest for understanding. She wanted to immerse herself in the mysteries of the universe and divine its secrets. One year we were praising Jesus, the next lighting a candle for Ganesh. Allah was salvation, the Buddha would give us enlightenment, and a guru named Dave was the path to the next plane. Mom prefers to call her habit of jumping beliefs as her "journey." It was this "journey" that bounced us around the country from commune to cooperative, retreat house to farmhouse, artist collective to temple my whole life.
I swallow against the acidic lump that's formed in my throat. "I have an inherited talent for adaptation."
"Interesting," Rashkur says, putting the tracker's card back within my reach. "Although you may want to be careful of how much you let the world change you, dollop. In the end, you might not like who you become."
"I'll remember that," I say, taking the card. It's rough like sandpaper and deceptively heavy as it sits in my palm. The scorched letters give an address for a place a few towns over. If I leave quickly I can get there before dark.
But I know I can't go yet — there is one more important question I need to ask. It's something I've dreaded since I found Rashkur's number among my mother's things and convinced myself to call. There is a lot I don't know about supernatural creatures, but there is one thing that I know for sure — there is always a price when dealing with them.
"What will this cost me?"
The demon smiles, showing all his teeth. The unnatural whiteness of them glows despite the dim bar lights. "Why don't you just go ahead and start this little quest of yours. If you come up empty-handed and brokenhearted as I suppose you will, we'll forget the whole thing happened. But if somehow you succeed, why don't you just come right on back here and we'll work something out. A favor of some kind, perhaps?" His gaze travels over my body. "I'm sure you have something I want."
Instinctively my hands cross over my chest. I don't know if he has the power to see through my clothes, but I feel exposed under his stare.
"Fine," I reply through clenched teeth as a shrill voice calls out behind me.
"Are my eyes playing tricks on me, sugar, or did I just see you passing along your number to another woman?"
I look over my shoulder and watch a tube-topped woman on the downside of her fifties approach, teetering on leopard-print heels.
"Of course not, candy cane," Rashkur says, his words dripping with drawl. "You know you're the only woman for me!"
He pats his lap, and the woman drops into it with a booze-assisted laugh.
"I know that's right!" she slurs. She looks me up and down with a scowl. "Who's your friend?"
"This is Dolores. Dolores, this is RitaMae."
"Charmed," RitaMae says, in a tone that makes it clear she is anything but.
"Dolores was just leaving," Rashkur says, pulling the barfly closer. "Good thing, too, because Miss RitaMae, you smell fine enough to eat."
The woman giggles and buries her face in Rashkur's neck. The demon flickers and I can see his true form, glowing yellow eyes, horns, red beveled skin and all. RitaMae rolls her head back up just as the demon returns to a socially acceptable version of normal. He licks the small drop of drool from the corner of his mouth.
"Fine enough to eat indeed," the demon repeats hungrily. He doesn't spare me a glance. "Good day, Dolores."
Dismissed, I make my way to the door just as the Patsy Cline impersonator begins to sing. Her voice is deep and sad, like a foghorn calling out on a desolate stretch of beach. Her eyes close as she implores someone not to leave her.
I step out into the blinding afternoon light and quickly close the door behind me. Despite what Rashkur said, the absence of one person can be true loss.
Especially if it's all your fault.CHAPTER 2
Blue Moon of Kentucky
My sweat-soaked back itches as I bounce down the country dirt road. It hasn't rained in weeks, and the parched soil under my tires sends up thick clouds of choking brown dust that force first my mouth, then my windows, closed. The GPS on my phone lost its signal miles back. I'm forced to dig out the map that came stuffed in my glove compartment when I bought the car. The map is ancient but fortunately, change is slow in rural Kentucky, and the roads still more or less match up.
The dense collection of trees and vines lining the road obscure the small hand-painted sign for Hummingbird Lane. I'm glad I spot it in time; the narrow county road would've made turning my boat of a car around an all-day event I didn't have the time for. Reducing my speed to better navigate the ruts and holes, I pray my exhaust system will weather the blows. After several minutes I finally spot the cream-and-yellow trailer sitting on a plot of land carved neatly into a field of high brittle grasses.
Stepping out of the car, I peel the shirt away from my body, shaking it out, trying to circulate some air over my skin. The cawing from a startled flock of crows echoes across the fields as I slam the car door and cross to the trailer. A railing-less set of wooden stairs leads up to the front door. I pull open the screen and knock, listening for sounds of stirring from within. Nothing. I knock again. Still nothing. I go for a third round, this time pounding the door in a manner any teenager who has ever been to a house party would describe as a "cop knock." It goes unanswered.
I jump down from the stairs and head to the back. The yard contains several garden beds with plants in various stages of seasonal viability. A white rope clothesline is suspended between two silver poles. A pair of men's jeans and several white T-shirts soak up the late-day sun next to a set of sheets. Their bright floral print contrasts with the muted tones of the flannel shirts clipped next to them.
I approach the back door and peer into the closest window. But lace curtains and the dark interior make seeing within impossible.
On the walk back to the car, I resolve to stay right here in these rural parts unknown and wait for the tracker all night if necessary. I pop open the trunk and pull out an old blanket, shaking away the dead leaves and random cellophane snack wrappers that cling to it. A trifold pamphlet flutters out as I snap the blanket onto the car's hood.
The front panel shows a picture of a forest shrouded in mist. Above it, in a silver medieval-style font, it says, "The World Beyond the Veil." It was the first conference Mom took me to after we arrived in Kentucky. I toss the pamphlet aside, hoping it will take the memory of that awful day with it.
I climb onto the hood and try to kill time. I play a mindless game on my phone until obnoxiously colored fruit flash before my eyes. I stare at the trailer, willing the door to open, even though I know a watched house never boils. Or some expression like that. My exhaustion is making me delirious.
The flaps of the pamphlet catch the wind. I pick it back up, my mind determined to wander back to the day that started it all.
In the cramped ballroom of the Dueling Derbies Inn, we sit through a wordy welcome from the keynote speaker, an old man in a rumpled tweed suit and bright bow tie. His speech centers on the magic all around us. He claims the world is like a stereogram, a Magic Eye book in our midst. The supernatural is always there, but only some experience it.
"Allow yourself to look," he says. "It is only then that you'll begin to truly see."
After the lecture, Mom stops at every vendor set up in an adjoining conference room. Everything from wands to monkey's paws to T-shirts advertising bands with names like "Samhain Blacklight" and "Goddess Gurlzzz" stud the overflowing tables. The whole place is filled with a horrible miasma of patchouli and burned cat hair.
Plopping myself down on the chair in the lobby with the fewest number of weird stains on it, I watch the motley assortment of people. They are the usual suspects you'd expect at a meeting like that one; hippie Wicca chicks, Goth kids, and a large number of older folks who looked like they were only there for a day out and free refreshments.
Eventually my eyes fall on a hard-to-miss woman completely covered in piercings, tattoos, and body modifications. I watch her laughing and joking with some similarly adorned friends. Without my meaning to, my gaze softens. Soon, I begin to see her differently. Her body mods look less crude, as if the spines on her forehead and hands are really made of bone. Her teeth are not just filed and capped, but grown from her gums as pointed metal. The inked images under her skin writhe and squirm like trapped souls fighting to get free.
Excerpted from The Things They've Taken by Katie McElhenney, Jenn Mishler. Copyright © 2017 Katie McElhenney. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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