Using his paw, he flattened me against the pavement. He was pushing too hard; my ribs creaked in pain.
“Stop!” I tried to shove his paw off, but he was much too strong. I didn’t know if he could hear me.
Or understand. I didn’t know if any part of Gabe was left inside the bear. Never before in my life had I witnessed anything so inexplicably horrifying.
The wind picked up, tangling my hair across my face. Through it, I watched the wind carry off the bear’s fur. Little tufts of it drifted up into the night. When I looked again, it was Gabe leaning over me.
His sadistic grin implied, You’re my puppet. And don’t you forget it.
I wasn’t sure which terrified me more: Gabe or the bear.
“Up you go,” he said, hoisting me to my feet.
He propelled me back along the road until the lights of 7-Eleven came into view. My mind staggered. Had he—hypnotized me? Made me believe he’d turned himself into a bear? Was there any other explanation? I knew I had to get out of here and call for help, but I hadn’t come up with the how yet.
We rounded the building to the all ey, where the others were congregated.
Two were dressed in street clothes, similar to Gabe’s. The third was wearing a lime-green polo with 7-ELEVEN and the name B.J. embroidered on the pocket.
B.J. was on his knees, clutching his ribs, moaning inconsolably. His eyes were squeezed shut, and saliva trickled from the corner of his mouth. One of Gabe’s friends—he wore an oversize gray hoodie—stood over B.J. with a tire iron, raised and ready to swing, presumably again.
My mouth went dry, and my legs seemed to be made of straw. I couldn’t unglue my eyes from the dark red stain seeping through the midsection of B.J.’s shirt.
“You’re hurting him,” I said, aghast.
Gabe held his hand out for the tire iron, and it was readily given to him.
“You mean this?” Gabe asked with mock sincerity.
He swung the tire iron down square against B.J.’s back, and I heard a grotesque crunch. B.J.
screamed, collapsed onto his side, and writhed in pain.
Gabe stretched the tire iron across the back of his shoulders, hanging his arms over it like it was a baseball bat. “Home run!” he holl ered.
The other two laughed. I was dizzy with the need to be sick.
“Just take the money!” I said, my voice rising toward a shout. Clearly this was a robbery, but they were taking it five steps too far. “You’re going to kill him if you keep hitting him!” A snicker moved through the group, as if they knew something I did not.
“Kill him? Unlikely,” Gabe said.
“He’s already bleeding heavily!”
Gabe raised an uncaring shoulder. And that’s when I knew he wasn’t just cruel, but insane. “He’ll heal.”
“Not if he doesn’t get to a hospital soon.”
Gabe used his shoe to nudge B.J., who had rolled over and planted his forehead on the cement apron spreading out from the back entrance. His whole body trembled, and I thought it looked like he was going into shock.
“Did you hear her?” Gabe yelled down at B.J. “You need to get to a hospital. I’ll drive you there myself and dump you in front of the ER. But first you got to say it. Swear the oath.” With great effort, B.J. lifted his head to fix a withering stare on Gabe. He opened his mouth, and I thought he was going to say whatever it was they all wanted him to, but instead he spat, hitting Gabe in the leg. “You can’t kill me,” he sneered, but his teeth chattered and his eyes rolled back to whites, clearly showing he was on the brink of fainting. “The—Black—Hand—told—me.”
“Wrong answer,” Gabe said, tossing the tire iron up and catching it like a baton. When the trick ended, he swooped the tire iron down in a violent arc. The metal smashed over B.J.’s spine, causing him to jerk rod-straight and cry out in a hair-raising yowl.
I drew both hands over my mouth, transfixed by horror. Horror from both the gruesome picture in front of me, and from a word screaming inside my head. It was as though the word had snapped free from deep in my subconscious and smacked me head-on.
That’s what B.J. is, I thought, even though the word meant nothing to me. And they’re trying to force him to swear an oath of fealty.
It was a frightening revelation, because I didn’t know what any of it meant. Where was I getting this from? How could I know anything about what was happening, when I’d never seen anything like it before?
I was torn from any further thought on the matter when a white SUV swung into the all ey ahead, the beam of its headlights causing all of us to freeze. Gabe discreetly lowered the tire iron, hiding it behind his leg. I prayed that whoever was behind the wheel would reverse out of the all ey and call the police. If the driver came much closer, well, I’d already seen what Gabe could do to convince people not to help.
I began drafting ideas in my mind of how to drag B.J. from the scene while Gabe and the others I began drafting ideas in my mind of how to drag B.J. from the scene while Gabe and the others were distracted, when one of the guys—the one in the gray hoodie—asked Gabe, “Do you think they’re Nephilim?”
Nephilim. That word. Again. Spoken out loud this time.
Instead of comforting me, the word only ratcheted up my terror another few notches. I knew the word, and now it seemed Gabe and his friends did too. How could we possibly have it in common?
How could we have anything in common?
Gabe shook his head. “They’d bring more than one car. The Black Hand wouldn’t go up against us with less than twenty of his guys.”
“Police, then? Could be an unmarked car. I can go convince them they’ve made a wrong turn.” The way he said it made me wonder if Gabe wasn’t the only one capable of his powerful brand of hypnotism. Maybe his two friends were as well.
The guy in the gray hoodie started forward, when Gabe put his arm out, catching him in the chest.
The SUV rumbled closer, gravel popping under its wheels. My legs hummed with nervous adrenaline. If a fight broke out, Gabe and the others might get so wrapped up in it, I could grab B.J.
under his armpits and haul him out of the all ey. A slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.
Suddenly Gabe boomed with laughter. He slapped his friends on the back, his teeth gleaming.
“Well, well, boys. Look who came to the party after all.”
THE WHITE SUV ROLLED TO A STOP AND THE engine cut off. The driver’s-side door opened, and through the grainy darkness, someone stepped out. Male. Tall. Loose-fit jeans and a white-and-navy baseball tee pushed up to his elbows. His face was concealed under the brim of a ball cap, but I saw the strong line of his jaw and the shape of his mouth, and the picture jolted me like a current of electricity. The flash of black bursting at the back of my mind was so intense, the color completely stained my vision for several seconds.
“Decided to join us after all?” Gabe called to him.
The newcomer didn’t answer.
“This one’s offering resistance,” Gabe continued, driving the toe of his shoe into B.J., who was still coiled in a ball on the ground. “Doesn’t want to swear fealty. Thinks he’s too good for me. And this, coming from a crossbreed.”
Laughter circled through Gabe and his two friends, but if the driver of the SUV got the joke, he didn’t show it. Sliding his hands into his pockets, he studied us in silence. I thought his gaze lingered a little long on me, but I was strung so tight, I could have seen something that wasn’t really there.
“Why is she here?” he asked quietly, lifting his chin at me.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” Gabe said.
“Now she’s a witness.”
“I told her to keep driving.” Was it just me, or did Gabe sound defensive? It was the first time all night anyone, however subtly, had questioned his authority, and I could practically feel the air around him sizzle with a negative charge.
“She wouldn’t leave.”
“She’s going to remember everything.”
Gabe swung the tire iron agilely in his hand, round and round. “I can convince her not to talk.” The driver’s eyes shifted to B.J.’s balled-up form. “Just like you convinced this one to talk?” Gabe frowned. His grip on the tire iron tightened. “Got a better idea?”
“Yeah. Let her go.”
Gabe thumbed his nose and gave a snort of laughter. “Let her go,” he repeated. “What’ll stop her from running straight to the police? Huh, Jev? Thought that one through?”
“You’re not afraid of the police,” Jev said calmly, but I thought I detected a hint of challenge. His second indirect threat to Gabe’s power.
Taking a risk, I decided to insert myself into their argument. “If you let me go, I promise I won’t talk.
Just let me take him with me.” I motioned at B.J.’s crumpled figure, and I said the words like they came from the very bottom of my soul. But I entertained the scary realization that I would have to talk.
I couldn’t let this kind of violence go unpunished. If Gabe was free, nothing was stopping him from torturing and terrorizing another victim. I shielded those thoughts from my eyes, suddenly worried that Gabe would see through me.
“You heard her,” Jev said.
Gabe’s jaw clenched. “No. He’s mine. I’ve been waiting months for him to turn sixteen. I’m not walking away now.”
“There’ll be others,” Jev said, looking uncannily relaxed as he laced his fingers on top of his head.
He shrugged. “Walk away.”
“Yeah? And be like you? You don’t have a Nephil vassal. It’s going to be a long, lonely Cheshvan, pal.”
“Cheshvan is still weeks away. You’ve got time. You’ll find someone else. Let the Nephil and the girl go.”
Gabe stepped up to Jev. Jev was taller and smarter and knew how to keep his cool—I’d gathered that in all of three seconds—but Gabe had the advantage of bulk. Where Jev was long and lean like a cheetah, Gabe was built like a bull. “You turned us down earlier. Said you had other business tonight. Far as I’m concerned, this isn’t your call. I’m sick of you strolling in at the last minute and calling the shots. I’m not leaving until the Nephil swears his oath of fealty.” There was that phrase again, “oath of fealty.” Vaguely familiar, and yet distant. If on some deeper level I knew what it meant, the memory wasn’t resurfacing. Either way, I knew it would have terrible consequences for B.J.
“This is my night,” Gabe added, punctuating the fact by spitting at his feet. “I’m ending it on my terms.”
“Wait a minute,” the guy in the gray hoodie interrupted, sounding stupefied. His eyes swiveled in both directions down the all ey. “Gabe! Your Nephil. He’s gone!” We all turned toward the spot where B.J. had lain inert only moments ago. An oily stain on the gravel was the only sign he’d been there.
“He couldn’t have gone far,” Gabe snapped. “Dominic, go that way,” he ordered the guy in the gray hoodie, pointing down the all ey. “Jeremiah, check the store.” The other guy, the one in a white graphic T-shirt, took off jogging around the corner.